The transformation framework: implications of social media for adolescent peer influence processes

The transformation framework proposes that social media fundamentally transforms adolescent peer experiences across five conceptual categories of transformation (Nesi et al., 2018a). With a recent nationally representative survey suggesting that 95% of teenagers have access to a smartphone and 45% go online “almost constantly”, it is clear that adolescents now have ample opportunities to influence and be influenced by their peers online (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). Implicit in early discussions of adolescents’ online peer experiences was the suggestion that these interactions simply mirrored those that occurred offline (see Nesi et al., 2018a). However, our understanding of social media has evolved. Pioneering models of adolescents’ online behaviour, such as the co-construction model (Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield, 2006), suggest that adolescent users construct and coconstruct their online environments, using these environments to carry out developmental tasks in new ways. Building on this and other “contextual approaches” to social media (McFarland & Ployhart, 2015; Subrahmanyam & Smahel, 2011), the transformation framework highlights the role of social

Adolescent peer influence in social media context 143 media as a new psychosocial context for adolescents. It proposes that the peer influence processes that occur within this online context may differ in key ways from offline processes, resulting in a transformation of peer influence (Nesi et al., 2018a, 2018b).

The transformation framework outlines seven specific features of social media that are critical to understanding adolescents’ online peer experiences: asynchronicity, permanence, publicness, availability, cue absence, quantiflability, and visualness. From a theoretical standpoint, we expect these features of social media to transform adolescents’ experiences of peer influence. Definitions and examples of these features appear in Table 9.1, adapted from Nesi et al. (2018a, 2018b). For example, the quantiflability of social media provides directly observable reinforcement for behaviours, in the form of numbers of

Table 9.1 Theoretical model and examples of how social media features may transform adolescents’ peer influence processes

Social media feature

Definition

Application to peer influence processes

Asynchronicity

Time lapse between aspects of communication.

• Can optimize appearance of conformity.

Permanence

Permanent accessibility' of content shared via social media.

• Can return to same messages repeatedly, allowing for repeated influence over time.

Publicness

Accessibility of information to large audiences.

  • • Access to broader peer network creates exposure to new behaviours.
  • • Opportunities for larger contagion effects.
  • • Can view other peers’ support of posted behaviours.

Availability'

Ease and speed with which content can be shared, regardless of physical location.

  • • Influential content and messages spread more quickly.
  • • Immediate reinforcement of content posted.

Cue absence

Degree to which physical cues are absent.

  • • Disinhibition creates potential for more deviant behaviour.
  • • Peers’ approval of behaviours may' be misinterpreted; potential for distorted peer norms.

Quantiflability'

Allowance for countable social metrics.

• Reinforcement for behaviours is directly observable in numbers of likes, comments, views, retweets, etc.

Visualness

Extent to which photos and videos are emphasized.

• Potential for powerful, reinforced visual displays of risk behaviour.

Note: Adapted from Nesi, Choukas-Bradley, and Prinstein (2018a, 2018b). Note that some examples may be related to multiple social media features.

likes, comments, views, retweets, and other indicators of peer approval. In addition, the publicness of social media allows for a large audience to view and reinforce content posted. According to the transformation framework, these seven features of social media are expected to transform peer influence experiences in five key ways, by:

  • 1 changing the frequency or immediacy of peer influence experiences (e.g., by exposing adolescents to potentially influential peer content 24 hours/ day);
  • 2 amplifying the experiences and demands related to peer influence;
  • 3 altering the qualitative nature of peer influence experiences;
  • 4 providing new opportunities for “compensatory” behaviours or those that would be possible, but unlikely, offline; and
  • 5 providing new opportunities for entirely novel behaviours.

With regard to the amplification of peer influence processes, the combination of social media’s publicness, availability, and permanence create a context in which adolescents’ content can be shared with a wide network of peers, including peers outside of one’s immediate peer group; accessed at any time of day and from any location; and viewed and shared repeatedly, over an extended period of time (Ehrenreich & Underwood, 2016; Nesi et al., 2018a). From a theoretical standpoint, these characteristics of social media should amplify the potential speed and reach of peer influence processes, beyond what is possible in a traditional, offline environment. The language now used to describe peer influence processes reflects the potential for rapid and widespread dissemination of content among peers, with such content often being described as “going viral” (Berger & Milkman, 2012; Thackeray & Neiger, 2009).

The nature of peer influence experiences may also be qualitatively changed on social media, with cue absence and asynchronicity creating an environment in which youth may feel a sense of disinhibition. This may encourage posting of content that teens would have been unwilling to share in person. Relatedly, opportunities to join “niche” communities abound on social media, potentially encouraging peer influence within them. Adolescents may find communities devoted to a particular interest, or, more problematically, those that encourage eating disorders or self-injurious behaviours. Finally, the social media context may provide opportunities for novel peer influence experiences around risky online behaviours. For example, adolescents are likely to imitate the behaviour of their peers when it comes to sexting (Rice et al., 2012) and posting alcohol-related content (Geusens & Beullens, 2017).

Notably, the discussion above is a theoretical one. Empirical research regarding online peer influence processes currently lags far behind theoretical advances in how online peer influence processes might occur. Below, we review the cunent empirical literature regarding peer influence through social media and highlight questions that remain to be answered.

 
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