Social psychology in changing times

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from ‘Connecting individuals, families and communities in changing and challenging times’, an online event in place of the BPS Social Psychology Section annual conference.

Parenting and sharenting

Professor Sonia Livingstone’s co-authored book, ‘Parenting for a Digital Future’, was researched and written before the pandemic, when the digital future was ‘the stuff of science fiction’. Now, of course, much of family life has moved online. ‘Our lives have become digital by default.’ Livingstone’s research on how hopes and fears about technology shape children’s lives is all the more relevant today. 

According to Livingstone, giving this year’s Distinguished Contribution to Social Psychology Award Winner Address, the task of parenting for a digital future is an impossible one. Parents have to prepare their children today for an unknown world in 2030 or 2040. They have to imagine the future, aware that the jobs of the future may not have been invented yet. What’s more, this is in the context of contradictory messages from the media that ‘position technology as both the cause and the solution’ of parental anxieties.

When parents express anxieties around technology, Livingstone thinks they may really be talking about more than technology – perhaps marital breakdown or economic insecurity. ‘The digital is salient because it symbolises parents' hopes and fears for their child and it acts as a lightning rod for those deeper and broader problems.’ 

Livingstone proposed three broad genres of parenting in relation to technology – embracing technology, resisting technology, and finding a balance that fits with parents’ values and philosophy. Parents ‘practice those genres according to their really diverse circumstances’, and although we might think of concerns around technology being a middle class preoccupation, Livingstone said that parents of all backgrounds in her research had anxieties.

Some of the parents who embrace technology might be accused of ‘sharenting’. According to Dr Charlotte Dann, speaking in one of the panel sessions, sharenting is ‘the oversharing of child and family focused content’ – basically, humblebragging about your family on social media to an irritating extent. Dann’s interviews with mothers showed that sharenting intensified stress during lockdown. Seeing lovely photos of children working neatly, despite knowing that these posts don’t necessary reflect reality, added to the pressure mothers already felt when home schooling.

Connecting online

Some of us stayed connected during lockdown through digital gaming. Dr Linda K. Kaye said that she situates her digital gaming research in self-determination theory (SDT). Within SDT, basic psychological needs theory points to three specific needs that when fulfilled lead to flourishing – competence, autonomy and relatedness. While the SDT and gaming literature tends to focus on competence and autonomy, the focus of Kaye’s talk was relatedness. 

According to Kaye’s preliminary analysis of a survey during lockdown, perceptions of ‘in game relatedness’ were the same for those who played online games, those who played offline games, and those who played a mixture of the two. Even when we’re physically distant, we can be socially connected through gaming. Although those who played a mixture of online and offline games had higher perceptions of generic relatedness (when not gaming), ‘we can still experience a feeling of belonging and connection’ through online gaming.

Dr David Giles explored a very different kind of connection – parasocial relationships. Parasocial relationships are strong attachments and feelings of closeness to people in the media (including fictional characters) that we’ve never met. There is no correlation with loneliness, explained Giles, so these relationships are supplemental, as opposed to fulfilling unmet needs. 

Thanks to social media, celebrities are more accessible – there is potential for reciprocation if you send a tweet, for example. But this doesn’t make the concept of parasocial relationships redundant. Giles argued that parasocial and social should be seen as two ends of a continuum, rather than separate. A Twitter reply does not constitute a close relationship, and even in close relationships there can be elements of fantasy. Parasocial relationships are perhaps one of the few things that are unchanged by the pandemic – Giles said the nature of these relationships wouldn’t have changed during lockdown since they were online anyway.

One thing I didn’t expect to hear about in a conference on connecting during challenging times was group cohesion in online white supremacist communities. Dr Ana-Maria Bliuc focused on the dark side of online interaction, among groups that promote hate and intolerance. Bliuc’s research has shown that offline socio-political events unite and reinvigorate online communities and attract new members.

Bliuc thinks that the current context may be a boost to the far-right. Death salience, which may have increased during the pandemic, is linked to the hardening of fundamentalist beliefs and aggression to those seen as a threat to tradition. Plus, increased reliance on online communication, again which we have seen due to the pandemic, allows far-right communities to become stronger and more hostile. 

Collective and political action

Now to connections that foster more positive outcomes. Selin Tekin Guven spoke about her research to understand campaigners supporting families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. Over two years, Tekin Guven interviewed campaigners and attended 20 Silent Walks. Each month, those who have been affected by the fire come together to walk silently in the community for 90 minutes. These walks, Tekin Guven concluded, were a way for campaigners to project their political power, to build solidarity, and to respect the community’s loss – to take action collectively to overcome injustice and pressure authorities.

Is it likely that those who take part in active participation will have children who go on to do the same? Dr Hector Carvacho shared his research on the intergenerational transmission of collective action in Chile, showing a link between parental political participation in the 1980s and recent participation in social movements in their children who are now adults. This transmission between generations occurred through conversations, Carvacho said, as well as parents taking children to political events during childhood, and cultural consumption – for example listening to left-wing musicians that convey the parents’ values.

Dr Laura K. Taylor presented the Developmental Peacebuilding Model, and its implications for growing up in divided societies. The model brings together the peace building literature, a developmental intergroup framework, and a social ecological perspective. Taylor’s research with adolescents has shown that greater quality contact across groups is associated with more support for peace building, which in turn is associated to more political participation and volunteering. The Developmental Peacebuilding Model recognises that children and adolescents have peace building potential, and that outgroup prosocial behaviours are a form of peace building.

Promoting prosocial behaviour

‘In the aftermath of a crisis, the search for culprits begins,’ according to Professor Hanna Zagefka, whose surveys earlier this year investigated blame around the coronavirus crisis. When things go wrong, we want to know who is to blame, and we are reluctant to blame those in our own group. We are also less likely to offer help (in the form of donations) to those in an outgroup. But ‘all is not lost’! Zagefka’s research found that thinking about the ‘global common fate that coronavirus has thrown at humanity’ increased people’s willingness to donate to outgroups. 

In the Early Career Award Winner Address, Dr Julie van de Vyver discussed the role of the arts for promoting prosociality. van de Vyver presented a series of studies demonstrating that attending arts events and participating in arts activities both contribute to prosociality within and across groups. For example, in the ESRC Understanding Society survey of 30,476 adults, arts engagement predicted charitable giving. In an experimental study, local artists worked with pupils over a week, documenting and celebrating good news stories. By the end, prosocial intentions had increased.  

van der Vyver linked this research to an evolving Arts and Kindness Model. Within this model, creation and consumption of the arts can promote kindness through four different mediators: emotion, learning, values and connection. Key attitudes and behaviours affected fall into two categories: generic kindness (such as volunteering, donating, caring), and inclusive kindness (respecting and helping outgroup members). Engagement with the arts seems to have a persistent effect, offering what van der Vyver described a ‘realistic, engaging and sustainable’ approach for fostering prosociality and cohesion.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber