Past President’s Column: Star Trek, Parasocial Psychology, and Understanding the Ethics of New Media

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Jerri Lynn Hogg

Jerri Lynn Hogg

Jerri Lynn Hogg, PhD
hoggjl@aol.com

Actress Marina Sirtis took to Twitter one Sunday in mid-October to discuss eating disorders. Sirtis, who is probably best known for her role as “ship’s counselor” (or psychologist) Deanna Troi in the 1990’s television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, has been quoted in the popular press as acknowledging episodes of anorexia and bulimia in her past (Smith, 1994; Wells, 2010). In an online article, Wells quotes her saying:

I just woke up one morning and thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m so bored with all I think about all day, every day, being what I can eat and what I can’t eat.”  So I was looking through the Hollywood Reporter, of all things, that morning and there was an ad for a therapist who dealt with eating disorders. I called her up and I went into therapy and got better, because an eating disorder is never the problem, it’s a symptom of the problem.

Sirtis went on Twitter that day to respond to an article by Liz Jones (2016) in the British tabloid newspaper, The Mail on Sunday.  That article, titled “Appalling I know, but sometimes I’m glad I have an eating disorder,” wittily described the author’s disgust with the “obscene” food consumption she witnesses on the streets of London, and concludes with the observation that, “It’s so much simpler if you just don’t do food” (Jones, 2016).

Sirtis (2016) tweeted: “As someone who has overcome an eating disorder, I found Liz Jones piece in @DailyMail Sunday glamourising her anorexia, appalling!” This message that went out to her 167,000 followers gathered 176 “likes” and 21 “retweets” in the following 20 hours.  It also generated a conversation among Sirtis and her fans, in which Sirtis disclosed information about her own struggle, encouraged others to confront their own food-related challenges, urged sufferers to seek counseling, and suggested to one that she form her own “social media group” to provide support for fellow sufferers who live in areas where traditional support networks are unavailable.

Sirtis (2016) also tweeted, “To anyone out there who is struggling with an eating disorder, please feel free to tweet me at anytime.” At another time, in a pair of connected tweets, she wrote, “ED’s are caused by a variety of reasons. It could be sexual abuse, verbal abuse having a parent who made one feel worthless.  The list goes on and on.  It’s a psychological problem which is exacerbated by images and messages that we get from all around us.”

On Twitter on that particular Sunday, Sirtis was doing what thousands likely do on social media every day: she shared information about a subject that is important and personal to her and encouraged others to follow the same path that led her to better health. Of course it happened on Twitter because similar talk occurs naturally among any group of friends.  The difference here was only that Sirtis’ friends were fans of her acting work—including Star Trek, with its well-studied world of fandom (Jindra, 1994; Walker, 2008; Taylor, 2015)—and the Twitter platform allowed her to speak to over 176,000 of them at a time.

But another unique aspect of Sirtis’s nook of the Twittersphere relates to her most famous character. To paraphrase the famous commercial from the 1980s, Sirtis is not a psychotherapist but she played one on TV.  There is ample research on the ways audiences form relationships with mediated personalities, including the characters they portray (Rubin, 2002; Eyal & Cohen, 2010). Moyer-Guse (2008) noted that audiences sometimes perceive media characters as members of their social circle and even seek advice and guidance from them.  This leads to an interesting question: Isn’t it likely that, at some level, a segment of Sirtis’s Twitter followers perceived her insights into eating disorders as psychological guidance from “ship’s counselor” Deanna Troi?

The ways in which lay audiences interpret psychological information, or seemingly psychological information, from the media is an area ripe for research. While much of the work in media psychology today often focuses on new and emergent fields such as social media and augmented reality, the field of media psychology was originally founded in response to psychologists appearing in the media (Friedland & Koenig, 1997).  This foundation can extend to the psychological messages disseminated in the social media, both by psychologists as well as well-intentioned laypersons, especially where the distinction may be fuzzy.

None of this analysis is meant to impugn the good intentions of Marina Sirtis, bless her half-Betazoid heart. She has every right to share her experiences and inform her social media followers about subjects that she finds important; her passion and sincerity shine through the thread discussed in this analysis.  Yet as social media continue to grow, and conversations such as Sirtis’s undoubtedly occur ever more frequently, we need to continue to look at foundational media psychology research to inform the issues that new media and technology present.

References

Eyal, K., & Cohen, J. (2006). When good friends say goodbye: A parasocial breakup study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 50, 502-523.

Friedland, L., & Koenig, F. (1997). The pioneers of media psychology.  In S. Kirschner & D. A. Kirschner (Eds.), Perspectives on psychology and the media (pp. 121-140).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Jindra, M. (1994). Star trek fandom as a religious phenomenon. Sociology of Religion, 55, 27-51.

Moyer-Gusé, E. (2008). Toward a theory of entertainment persuasion: Explaining the persuasive effects of entertainment‐education messages. Communication Theory, 18, 407-425.

Rubin, A. M. (2002). The uses-and-gratifications perspective of media effects. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Taylor, L. D. (2015). Investigating fans of fictional texts: Fan identity salience, empathy, and transportation. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 172-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000028

 

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