ICA presents: Hello, I'm Ellen Wartella and welcome to this episode of the Architects of Communication Scholarship podcast series, a production of the ICA Podcast Network. Today, our architect is Patti Valkenburg. Patti Valkenburg is a University Distinguished Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the cognitive, emotional and social effects of media on youth and adults. She is particularly interested in theorizing and demonstrating how children, adolescents and adults differ in their susceptibility to the effects of media. Her research has been recognized by multiple grants and awards, among them the Career Achievement Award by the International Communication Association and the Outstanding Interdisciplinary Contribution Award from the Society for Research on Adolescence. Patti is as well a Fellow of the ICA, the Association for Psychological Science, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Holland Society of Science and Humanities. Today, Patti Valkenburg will be interviewed by Tim Verbeji and Teun Siebers. Both Tim and Teun are currently PhD students at the University of Amsterdam.
Hi, everyone. I am Tim Verbeij. I study the validity of social media use measures.
Hello, everyone. I am Teun Siebers. I study the effects of social media use on adolescent self control and distraction. Tim and I are both part of Project AWeSoMe led by Patti Valkenburg. Project AWeSoMe stands for Adolescents, Well-being, and Social Media and we are investigating why social media use makes some adolescents happy while leaving others feeling blue. We are very excited to interview Patti Valkenburg, our PhD supervisor.
So hello, Patti. It's great to have you on this podcast. Can you tell us a little bit more about your personal background?
Thank you, Tim and Teun. I'm born in Delft, a medieval town in the Netherlands. I'm a first generation scholar. My academic career actually did not follow the standard path. I started my university studies only at age 30. Before that, I worked for 12 years as a nurse, a secretary, a bartender, and in between, I studied to become a teacher in healthcare education. A few years after I finished my teacher training, I started my university studies on healthcare education. This program was part of the Department of Child and Family Studies at Leiden University here in the Netherlands, so I formally graduated in Child and Family Studies.
So how did you end up in communication then?
Right from the start of my university studies, I became fascinated about two topics: research methodology and media effects. Both my master and doctoral thesis were media effects studies. My master's thesis was about the effects of violent media on fear reactions among adolescents, and my doctoral thesis was on the influence of television on children's creativity. Soon after my PhD degree in 1995, I moved to a communication school that was later named ASCoR, the Amsterdam School of Communication Research. And this is how I ended up in communication, where I still am to this day.
We're also curious to know who your mentors were as you came into the field, people that really inspired you.
I must say I've always more or less been an individualist during my career. I prefer to collaborate with young scholars in small, friendly research teams like we do in our current project. This preference to work in small team can in fact be explained. After my doctoral degree in 1995, not many academics were interested in my research. At the time, research on media wasn't considered very important in the Netherlands, let alone media research among children and adolescents. At the time, it was very difficult for me to get a research position at a university. Best position that I could obtain was a 100% teaching position in the Department of Communication here at the University of Amsterdam. And in this teaching position, I worked myself to death to get research funding. It was Professor Holly Semetko, the department chair at the time, who taught me how to write successful research proposals. Within a year after my doctoral degree, I obtained funding for two prestigious postdoctoral fellowships. So for sure Holly Semetko was my mentor in writing research proposals. During my first ICA conference in 1995, I met Professor Joanne Cantor, which was wonderful. We became friends and wrote a couple of papers together. Joanne is an excellent writer and her comments on my work certainly improved my writing. Other intellectual models inspired me mostly through their work. I think of Albert Bandura. He passed away last year. I remember he asked me to send him a print of one of my dissertation articles. At the time, I was really starstruck, so honored and excited that Bandura was interested in my work. Over the years, my studies have also been greatly inspired by the work of many communication scholars, such as Steve Chafee, Dolf Zillmann, Joe Walther, Mike Slater, Mary Beth Oliver, Dafna Lemish, Sonia Livingstone, and many, many others.
So after you receive the funding for your own postdoctoral fellowships, you have been able to obtain an incredible amount of research funding. How did all these grants influence your career so far?
After these two initial research proposals, I got the hang of it, so to speak. So virtually all research proposals I wrote afterwards, I’ve been funded, which is of course wonderful. But the biggest assets of my grants is that they enabled me to conduct team science on topics of my own choice and to form small teams with postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. Teams like we have now in our Project AWeSoMe. I've actually been conducting team science long before the term became as popular as it is now. My first research team started 20 years ago, and this team Jochen Peter and I collaborated with four PhD students on the social consequences of social media for adolescents. And you must know that the term social media did not even exist at the time. In my second team, Jessica Piotrowski and I collaborated with three PhD students on the effects of media entertainment, on children's cognitive abilities, ADHD-like behavior, and aggression. And currently, I'm working with Ine Beyens, Irene van Driel, and Amber van der Wal with the two of you in Project AWeSoMe.
Why are you actually such a big fan of team science?
Team science allows you to collect data from more sizable and representative samples, and it also allows you to better identify and acknowledge the blank and blind spots in your research, eventually, to realize better publication. This year, Project AWeSoMe received the Outstanding Interdisciplinary Contribution Award from the Society for Research on Adolescence, which is one of my best awards, because it's a team sized award. Many of the postdocs and PhD students from whom I hired in these team science projects are now themselves professors, and important ICA members. And as you can imagine, I'm very, very proud of their successes.
You're actually one of the very few social scientists in the Netherlands who received the Spinoza Award, which is considered the Dutch Nobel Prize. How does that feel for you to win this award?
Of course, that still feels fantastic. 2011 was my pinnacle year. I was the first communication scholar who became a Fellow of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Scientists, and I was the first social scientist to receive the Spinoza Award. And that's a huge honor in itself, but this prize also comes with two and a half million euros, which you are free to spend on any research goal. I could spend most of my time on the research.
Your publications all seem to focus on media effects. Why did you choose this focus?
I'm fascinated about studying media effect, and I actually think that this is caused by a devastating experience as a 15-year-old adolescent after watching the movie The Exorcist. It's so scary. As we know from the literature, teenagers have a particular interest in horror movies, probably due to changes in the dopamine levels in their brain. They also often lack insight in what horror content they can manage. So what happens? This movie had a terrible effect on me. For a whole year, I couldn't fall asleep. That particular year, I failed my class in high school, and that was mainly due to lack of sleep. I would say that's a big media effect, right? For me, The Exorcist movie had a major effect. And this experience induced me more than a decade later to write my MA thesis and several publications on media induced fears.
What is a highlight you remember where communication really had an impact?
Look at the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths have been associated with COVID-19 mis- and disinformation. Such a huge impact of communication can hardly be denied, and we are currently in the midst of a war here in Europe, which is for a considerable part an information war, which has an immense impact on all of us. Information and disinformation about attacks, killings, sanctions, et cetera. All have a viral quality that never existed before. And what we see is that their viral quality leads to diametrically opposed perceptions of what and who is right or wrong within different continents.
Can you explain these opposing reactions to information across the globe?
I think the replicability affordance of social media, its potential to like, retweet, and reshare information, is an important stimulate of the so-called illusory truth effect. If we hear the same false information repeatedly, we more easily come to believe it. Social media and its replicability affordance certainly played a huge role in the illusory truth effect. I think that this phenomenon, in fact, confirms our media affect theories. Messages have the highest impact when they converge with the opinions and norms in the environment of the message recipient. In my DSM Model, the Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model, which I co-developed with Jochen Peter, we have called this effect the context-content convergence effect. The DSM Model is my most cited model. I wrote it together with Jochen Peter, and in this model we integrated insight from a dozen earlier media affect theories. An important premise of most of these theories is that media effects are conditional, which means that they do not equally hold for all media users. Based on these earlier theories, I tried to conceptualize three types of differential susceptibility to media effects: dispositional, developmental, and social susceptibility. I already gave one example of social susceptibility by means of the context-content convergent hypothesis. This hypothesis explains why media messages that converge with yourthe opinions, values and norms in one's environment have a particularly high impact on media users. Our DSM model explains, for example, how one's pre-existing moods can predict social media use. Low moods can lead some social media users to browse positive information, which make them happy afterwards. But among some others, it can lead to doom scrolling, the repeated exposure to negative messages, which could worsen their already low mood. I think the challenge for communication scholars is to figure out the specific characteristics and circumstances of both these doom scrollers. I hope that we, in our team, will soon be better able to answer these questions.
In your area of research, what do you think are the big intellectual questions for communication scholars to address in the upcoming decade?
I think the big question for us communication scholars is to understand the effects of mis- and disinformation and the hate and polarization that can result from it. I also believe that we, as communication scholars, are pre-eminently qualified to answer this question. We have the theories to understand why certain people selectively expose themselves to such information, and we have the theories to understand why and how it could affect them and their environment. Sometimes though, I'm sorry to see that media effects researchers are so polarized in their interpretation of media effects. You see that in the media violence and aggression field, and you also see it in the social media and well being field. The small and inconsistent aggregate effect that we usually find, often leads to heated debates among scholars on whether we should take such effect seriously or not. As you know, in our current project, we have tried to resolve these inconsistent results and interpretation by introducing a person specific media effects paradigm. We showed, for example, that for most adolescents, social media use did not hardly impact their well being. Whereas for small group, it led to large positive, and for another small group, to large negative effects on wellbeing. I think it would be really important if we could apply our paradigm to explain the effects of mis- and disinformation.
What do you think are the big societal challenges and opportunities where communication scholarship can make a major contribution?
In my work on children, adolescents, I've always tried to combine intellectual questions with attempts to address societal challenges, but unfortunately, it evermore occurs to me that the societal challenges in our field require more than just scientific understanding. For example, think of how many of us are seduced by technological features, and affordances of social media, which keep us glued to our screen and enhance our susceptibility to their effects, including the illusory truth effect. But to address such huge societal challenges, we need a global cooperative effort among researchers, governments and social media platforms. We have all too often experienced that business and ethics don't go together. So in my view, we may need stricter global policies and laws to protect ourselves and our children.
Since this podcast series is titled Architects of Communication Scholarship, what would you say you have built so far?
To stay in the metaphor of an architect, I think I've designed a beautiful and well funded house, and my house has multiple rooms and offices that each differ in design, color, furniture, and atmosphere. And especially young people are welcome in my house. But seriously, I developed several models and theories, for example, on social media induced self effect. And in the theory, I explained how and why sending social media messages can affect the sender themselves. I argue that some affordances of social media, such as their cue manageability, and scalability can stimulate certain mechanisms, such as public commitment to one's own messages. And these social media induced mechanism can in turn stimulate self effects.
Do you have any advice for young scholars like me and Teun?
During or after your PhD degree, you have to carve out your own research line. But this has become ever more difficult due to the proliferation of communication research, within communication discipline, but also far beyond. Therefore, to become successful, and make the difference, a sustained focus is ever more important. It is important to always keep the balance with your longer term academic goals. You need to start building your reputation, and important way to do so is by keeping your promises to colleagues and by meeting your deadlines. Don't say yes to request you cannot meet. Otherwise you will disappoint your colleagues, and they will not ask you again. And finally, always try to walk the extra mile. No one is perfect, and we all make oversights in our writings. Even the most experienced writer do so. I can tell you if you write an article or research proposal, finish it well before the deadline and ask colleagues for input and comments. Walking this extra mile to render your work from good to excellent with which increases the chance of positive reviews or funding.
Thank you so much Patti, for this great advice.
We are grateful to be able to work with you and our colleagues in Project AWeSoMe. Thank you so much for your time and all the best in your research.
My pleasure. Thank you.
This episode of Architects of Communication Scholarship podcast series is presented by the International Communication Association Podcast Network and is sponsored by The School of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University. Our producer is Jacqueline Colarusso. Our executive producer is Aldo Diaz Caballero. Our production consultant is Nick Song. The theme music is by Humans Win. For more information about our participants on this episode, as well as our sponsor, be sure to check the episode description. Thanks for listening.