A digital highway to new audiences

Darel Cookson reports from 'Digital World and Me', a public event hosted and organised by Staffordshire University Psychology Department, and sponsored by the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

The Festival of Social Science promotes leading social science research to new audiences, through hundreds of events across the UK. Digital World and Me was one of these events, offering fascinating insights into how the Digital World might be influencing us. I attended this event as a guest, while also helping out with some of the interactive demonstrations. 

Digital World and Me was led by Dr Sarah Rose and Dr Daniel Jolley and supported by the Psychology Department at Staffordshire University. Guests arrived from 6pm and were welcomed by Dr Rose. During the first half of the evening guests were invited to three TED-style talks, where social scientists gave interesting and fast-paced introductions to the latest research in their field.

The first speaker was Dr Craig Wakeman, whose talk 'Getting the most out of life… The surprising quality of computer games' was a compelling account of how his research interest in our unconscious expression arose from his personal experiences of martial arts training. Wakeman highlighted the potential neglect of creativity within education systems and thus the difficulty to be our authentic selves. He argued that gaming provides a unique opportunity to investigate behaviour during a state of total expression. 

Next, Dr Sarah Rose shared findings from her timely research on the impact of television on children. Children’s screen time has changed vastly in a short space of time, and the impact of this on children’s development is clearly of interest to many parents in particular. Dr Rose highlighted the mixed research findings to date; correlational research has linked screen time with negative outcomes, for example poorer grades; however, experimental research has found benefits, for example improving vocabulary. Dr Rose pointed out that the impact can depend very much on the type of screen time. Like most things, moderation is key.

The final speaker was Dr Daniel Jolley, who discussed how fake news can easily spread on the internet. Jolley illuminated the differences in how a lot of people obtain their news now compared to before the internet, which can allow for fake news to thrive. As well as why we might believe fake news, Dr Jolley also discussed what some of the dangers of this are – and the more we are exposed to misinformation, the more credulous we are!

The TED-style talks provided great tasters of the social science research conducted at Staffordshire University. As a social science researcher myself, it was interesting to hear research findings at the forefront of debated topics. 

The final part of the evening consisted of interactive demonstrations, where guests had the opportunity to use some of the research equipment available. There was an eye-tracking demonstration, where guests could use the eye-tribes to track their eye movements when looking at different news articles and then guess which articles were fake. The virtual reality (VR) demonstration allowed guests to wear the VR goggles and immerse themselves in different virtual environments. There was also a demonstration which encouraged us to think about some of the dangers of the digital world, and in particular cyberbullying. It was useful to remain reflective about our own influence while online, as well as how the digital world influences us. 

The evening certainly delivered social science research into how the Digital World could influence us to new audiences. It was also a great opportunity to share personal research interests and methodologies used in social sciences with the public; something I would enjoy doing more of. 

- Reviewed by Darel Cookson, PhD student at Staffordshire University. 

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