‘I think of technology as a tool’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets Genavee Brown (Northumbria University).

How did you become interested in studying the benefits and risks of technology for relationships?

After my undergraduate, I went away to the Democratic Republic of Congo for two years and taught there. I finished my undergraduate degree in 2010. When I came back in 2012 to do my masters degree in the States, everything had changed. It was all because of this device called the iPhone. When I left hardly any people had smartphones, it was only super wealthy students who I saw carrying them around. Now everybody had one, and everybody was accessing the internet through them. You could do all sorts of things that I hadn't been able to do when I left. I hadn't really seen the change, because I've been in Congo – people don't have that access to that sort of technology. They had little Nokia flip phones. So I saw the changes in social interactions… I saw how people were so dependent on things like Google Maps to navigate anywhere; nobody called anymore, it was all texting; it was just all these little changes in how we interact that made me interested in that topic.

Little changes that you experienced as quite a sudden shift. I know other researchers have talked about the iPhone as quite a kind of paradigm shift for psychology, in terms of the relationship with technology.

It was the first of its kind to really be connected, to have a touchscreen, to be so accessible to so many people. I do think it was probably a big shift in how we relate to technology, the fact that we can just carry a computer around in our pocket, which we couldn't do before.

So what was the first kind of study that you did around that? 

In my masters, I had a very supportive but hands off advisor who told me ‘go follow your passion’. I was very interested in how phones were changing our social interactions. I wanted to see whether they actually do decrease interaction quality when they're present. So I did a an observational study: I had about 60 pairs of friends come into the lab. I slightly deceived them, saying, ‘Hey, I forgot to print off some questionnaires, can you just wait here for five minutes?’. I videotaped them while they were waiting, and I then coded their interaction for how many seconds they used their phone during that interaction. And when I came back in the room, I said, ‘Oh, I've got the questionnaires. But you just tell me what quality of interaction you've just had a minute you're waiting?’ What we found was that the amount of time that people spent on their phones during that five-minute interaction negatively correlated with their interaction quality. 

Of course, that's correlational. Is it that using their phone distracted from the interaction, and that's what made it worse quality? Was it that people were feeling anxious or awkward, and that's why the interaction wasn’t good, and that's why they got out their phone? We don't know that directionality. 

So they were friends before they came in… when you ask friends about the impact of their phone on their relationship quality, do people report negative impacts over a longer period of time than just that momentary interaction?

I did a slightly different study, a seven-day diary study on adolescents. We asked teenagers about how much time they spent on their phone, texting or video calling friends and their parents. Then we asked about how much face-to-face time they spent with them. One of the interesting things that came out of that study was that when you looked at the aggregate data, averaging across the week, there was a positive correlation between the time spent video calling your friends and the time spent with them face to face. When you looked at the daily data, there was a negative correlation. So it seems like on days when people can't be face-to-face with their friends, they are using their phones to connect with them. I think about technology in that way, as compensating for the lack of face-to-face interaction. 

Anecdotally, I think a lot of adults that you talk to, say, ‘my phone's good for me, but I absolutely accept that in terms of my relationship with my partner, it has a negative impact, because we're always on our phones’. I haven't seen that much research from a social psychology perspective… it seems to be more about the impact on individual cognition.

I do know of some other work where the researchers rented out a restaurant for two nights. One night, they had families come in, and they literally took away their phones: ‘you can get it back at the end of dinner’. And then on the second night, they didn't do that. When families didn't have their phones, they rated their interaction quality as higher. So there's some like evidence for this.

I think most families would accept that… maybe they just need somebody else to enforce it! In my experience, ‘put your phone away kids, we're spending quality family time!’ is a surefire way to turn it into non-quality time. And I suppose it’s also about parents modelling good practices. 

And about realising the drawbacks of the technology, and trying to set up new norms. Some friend groups have a rule that everybody has to put their phone in a jar in the middle of the table. If you reach for it, you have to buy a round, or put some money in the jar for the next activity you're going to do together. Families could probably do the same thing and set up certain norms around ‘Hey, this is time when we don't use our phones’… whatever works for them.

How do you respond to psychologists like, say, Andy Przybylski, who often posts his ‘there’s gotta be a way to pin this in iPhones’ meme on Twitter… parodying the fact that anything negative at the moment gets linked to the launch of the iPhone. I guess he's partly talking about recent research from Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, and graphs that are like, ‘Introduction of iPhone was here, bad things happen here’.

I am very sceptical of those broad assumptions. A lot of things changed around the time of the iPhone. There have been huge societal shifts, especially in the United States, including greater economic inequality, inequal access to technology. But I do think these products are designed to suck us in and to get us to use them more than maybe we want to. 

I like them. They’re shiny. How do they suck you in and distract from interactions, what's pulling the levers psychologically?

A big one is notifications. We get a positive dopamine hit when we have a social interaction, so somebody sends us a text, it pops up on our screen, that makes me feel good about myself. We automatically respond to those things. Also, we are information driven, maybe more now than before. We crave certainty, we look for new information, but also for information that either confirms our beliefs, or that will help us decrease our uncertainty. I’m looking at some data actually, on social anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty and using your phone in a social situation. People who have high intolerance of uncertainty often feel uncomfortable in social interactions – you don't know how the person is going to respond, you don't know how they're going to perceive you. Using your phone can help you either withdraw from that interaction and regain some control over it, or it can also help reduce some informational uncertainty. Say nobody can decide on a restaurant; let's pick the top rated one in Newcastle, and let's go there. That decrease in uncertainty that phones provide for us is something that's quite thrilling, and that we enjoy a lot.

I guess there hasn't been a bigger period of uncertainty than the last couple of years… have you been looking specifically at technology use in the context of Covid and uncertainty?

I did do some work with a researcher at UCLA, we collected data during the two different statewide lockdowns in the United States. We looked at increases in texting, voice calls and video calls with friends and family during that lockdown period. We found that people who engaged in more technology mediated communication, had higher wellbeing – greater satisfaction with life and increase positive emotions during that lockdown period. That was particularly true if they stayed in touch with their friends.

I guess students are a good participant pool for you, and there are presumably good reasons to suppose that technology and phones are particularly important for student communities. 

For my dissertation study, I looked at how students maintain old connections and develop new connections on Facebook when they transition to university. I did a cultural comparison between America and France, because I did my PhD in France. French people tended to communicate more with close old contacts, than new contacts. They tended to rely more heavily on their previous network, remain embedded in that… it’s probably a function of the fact that French people tend to get sent to university in their region, rather than moving cross country the way people often do in the States to go to university. Because they have less residential mobility, when they go off to university they can and stay embedded in those in those previous networks that they had.

Is it better for well-being to not remain so embedded… to have a clean break when you’re starting university?

French people who stay embedded in those local networks tended to have stronger bonding social capital, this emotional support from their networks, whereas Americans who spread out and met lots of new people, they tended to have more bridging social capital or informational resources. They had their fingers and lots of pies, they were learning about all sorts of different opportunities, but they didn't necessarily have the same levels of emotional support that the French students had.

Is it frustrating, in researching this area, that the platforms themselves move on so quickly? Presumably, you can do a study on Facebook, and by the time you've published it, people are saying, ‘oh, young people don't use Facebook anymore.’

This happened to my dissertation, because one of the variables I wanted to look at was ‘likes’ and mid dissertation, they introduced the emotions, reactions. 

But this research started off being very linked to the platforms. Now, if we look at it through a social psychology perspective, we can think about things like context. This is a variable I've been thinking about a lot lately – for example, whether messages are private or public. There are some platforms where it's easier to distinguish between those two. So Facebook, you clearly have Messenger, which is a private thing, and your status updates, which are public. How do results there translate to something like Twitter or TikTok, where everything's public, versus Snapchat, where it’s more private context. It's thinking about the contextual variables that we can link to the platforms. 

What about you your current projects? I believe you've got one on Instagram and emoticons usage in different cultures. 

There are rules around what type of emotion it's appropriate to display in different contexts. In different cultures, those rules change. We only got a Western culture sample, but we did find for example that people tend to express more happiness in public context than sadness, and are more willing to express sadness with people they’re close to versus more distant connections. And we asked people, if you had to share bad news with your best friend on Facebook, what emoji would you use? We had different emojis ranked with different intensities based on a pretest. We asked what they would use to share good or bad news, and they said they would use less intense emoticons with people they weren't so close with. 

You're also interested in sexual orientation and gender online. 

We have started work on a couple of projects. With an undergraduate student, we looked at relationship signalling behaviours on Facebook, in LGBTQ people. And we found that LGBTQ people who signal their relationship on Facebook – including relationship status, posting pictures together – report higher relationship quality. 

Again, I suppose you've got no real way of getting the correlation, causation aspects of that. Perhaps people with really good relationships want to brag about it.

No, we don't know. But one of the things we're doing this year with that same masters student is looking at LGBTQ people's social networks. We're asking them to list all the people they've communicated with in the past two weeks, and then we're asking them to tell us how ‘out’ they are to each of these people. Then we’ll ask about the relationship quality with them. 

One of the reasons I thought Facebook behaviours might improve relationship quality is because that's a signal of ‘outness’, and that has been linked to higher levels of well being in LGBTQ people. 

So the finding about relationship status and signalling, you'd expect that to apply more in LGBTQ relationships than heterosexual relationships?

I might, yes – we'd have to collect data in both samples, because we only had an LGBTQ sample study.

That links with general self-disclosure online in a variety of areas. That's something I've been interested in, particularly in the community of psychologists around things like lived experience… the motivations for talking about personal lived experience online, and the consequences of doing that.

I am very interested in self disclosure. That's a very social psych variable. I think it serves the same purpose as it does in other contexts – to strengthen relationships for the most part. When you start doing it with strangers, that becomes a different kettle of fish. I think of technology as a tool. You could say is has transformed our relations, but I don't think so… I think we are using it in ways that we typically engage in face-to-face interactions. We are sharing the things we care about, the things that we're worried about. We're seeking social support the way we would in a face-to-face interaction. It serves some of the same purposes. 

It's amplifying and facilitating rather than anything completely different. 

Another string to your bow has been setting up the departmental podcast. In my experience psychologists are, like everybody else, very keen on setting up podcasts and are looking for tips. Do you have any?

I have to praise Northumbria University here – they gave us a nine hour podcast training course, where we learned about syntax of podcasts… an introduction, interview with your guests, some kind of outro and call to action. The second one was all about audio editing: we use Adobe Audition. The last one was about marketing your podcast wide audience. So I did have some training, but then I've also been learning through trial and error. The first couple episodes, I didn't do anything fancy with the editing. Now, I go through and I cut out the ‘umms’ and the extra long pauses. I've put on some filters to make the sound a little bit better. The first time I tried one it sounded like a metallic voice! 

It can seem overwhelming to start… you have to be organised. The best advice would be to make sure you have your guests lined up and your audio recorded ahead of time. I release my podcasts every two weeks, and I just couldn't keep up with recording them and editing them. This semester, I've recorded them all ahead of time and then I'm just editing them as the weeks go by.

I feel it's quite easy to do a podcast, but it's quite difficult to do a good podcast. How polished you want it to be is up to you. But none of that seems as important as having a clear purpose, and an audience in mind.

Yes, on the Big Five podcast we speak to students, alumni and researchers in the department about their time studying psychology at Northumbria. So for students, we focus on the student experience in case any students are considering coming to Northumbria. For alumni, we talk about the jobs that they've gotten after university. And then we talk to researchers in the department, both so they can have more impact with their research and get it out in the public eye but also so that students who are going to pick a supervisor will know more about their work.

It sounds like quite a big thing to take on, in addition to all the other things that an academic has to do. What is it like being an academic in 2022?

Overwhelming! But the podcast was a really a labour of love, because I have been a huge fan of podcasts and listen to them pretty much all the time when I'm not working. So I think being an academic in 2022, you have more scope to follow your passion, but you have less time. Rising student numbers, more administrative tasks, more pressure to publish and get grants that are even more rare. If you find something you love and you're passionate about, it's great being an academic in 2022. 

Can you imagine being anything else? 

I would definitely be a podcast host. I would love to do that. I would enjoy doing research in private in private industry as well, but it has to be something I’m passionate about.

Do you see any other kind of research areas on the horizon? 

Looking at online power. How people acquire it, how it influences their behaviour. And I've started looking at some studies on online misogyny, I'm going to have a PhD student starting on the topic, because I think that as women have more of a voice on the internet they become more of a target. I'd like to think about some ways that we can prevent that prevent them from being a target in the first place, and then also to combat misogyny once it is out there on the internet. To prevent people from kind of using their power in these negative ways online.

Such a complex area… I saw Claudia Hammond talking about her Kindness Project and how #BeKind has perhaps been adopted to shut down people – particularly women – having an opinion online. 

I saw a really interesting study the other day, called annotating online misogyny, and they were talking about how online misogyny isn't just the things we would have thought about in the past, like sexual harassment or shouting at someone or insulting them or bullying them. It's also things like denying inequalities. It's silencing someone, negating their opinion. I’d like to look at whether different contexts elicit different forms of misogyny. So I've got two Masters students right now, one looking at misogyny on TikTok – the cake challenge, basically, it's to tell whether a woman's butt is big enough or not. My student is analysing the comments on this challenge. And then I've got another student who's looking at online misogyny, but in Instagram groups for female bodybuilders. So here we have women who don't follow the typical gender norm. I'm expecting that we'll see different forms of misogyny in these two groups. I expect we'll see it in both groups, but I expect it'll be more virulent and more of the direct bullying and kind of harassment in the bodybuilding circles.

Another group for you to look at, given your interest – podcast hosts. There’s a whole ecosystem there that I think is quite questionable, particularly targeted at young people.

I am going to write a small grant for that. I've considered it.

Maybe I should mention, I have another PhD student, Richard Rawlings, looking at the experience of being LGBTQ in rural areas of England, and how rural LGBTQ people use online dating apps to kind of develop a community around themselves. He's just getting started. 

I got my own PhD in 2018. I've only been here three years. I’m an ECR but I just I really enjoy supervising students. And I like one on one tuition. I like teaching students, guiding through them through the process of doing studies. I do like that one-on-one relationship.

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