What Is Media Psychology?

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What Is Media Psychology?

Media psychology is a newer branch of psychology that examines the ways people are impacted by mediated communication.

Today, we spend most of our waking hours saturated in media and technology. As a result, media psychology has become a vital area of investigation. However, the field's interdisciplinary nature and the constantly changing ways people interact with media in all aspects of their lives, from work to education to entertainment to social engagement, makes it difficult to define.

Media psychology draws heavily from psychology and communication, but also incorporates scholarship from other fields, including sociology, media studies, anthropology, and fan studies. Moreover, the field is still scattered across many disciplines with many scholars who do not consider psychology their primary area of interest conducting research on media's influence on individuals.

Perhaps the definition that best captures the depth and breadth of the field is offered by Karen Dill in The Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology: "Media psychology is the scientific study of human behavior, thoughts, and feelings experienced in the context of media use and creation."

In other words, media psychology is interested in understanding the constantly evolving connection between humans and media from a psychological perspective.

History of Media Psychology

The roots of media psychology can be traced back over a century to early studies on the perception of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional canvas.

These ideas were applied in social psychologist Hugo Munsterberg's 1916 book, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, the first work to empirically explore the way an audience responded to film. By the time television became widespread in the 1950s, psychologists had started to investigate how media affects children.

However, media psychology wasn't recognized as an official field in the discipline of psychology until 1986 when Division 46: Media Psychology was established by the American Psychological Association (APA). Initially, the division focused on psychologists who appeared as experts in the media, an objective that is still listed as part of its mission. However, Division 46, which has since changed its name to the Society for Media Psychology and Technology, has shifted its focus to research on the effects and influence of media.

In 2003 the first, and so far, only APA accredited media psychology PhD program in the United States was launched at Fielding Graduate University, and David Giles published the first survey of the field with his text Media Psychology.

Since then, the field has continued to expand, with the emergence of several scholarly journals specifically dedicated to media psychology, the publication of additional books covering the area of study in whole or in part, and an increase in universities, including Stanford, Cornell, and Penn State, that dedicate an area of study and research, usually within the communication department, to media psychology-related topics.

Topics in Media Psychology

There are a plethora of topics that media psychology seeks to explore. Some of these include but aren't limited to:

  • Media influence, such as whether exposure to media depictions of violence increases aggression, how depictions of gender roles influence children's understanding of what it means to be a woman, man, or other gender, and how media messages can be constructed in order to persuade someone to donate to charity or behave in other prosocial ways.
  • Online learning, such as the way in-person lessons must be adjusted so they can most effectively be communicated to online students from different age groups and the most effective ways to set up online learning platforms to sustain student attention and information absorption.
  • Impact of social media, such as how platforms can be adjusted so they create a more comprehensive picture of the world that the silos of like-minded individuals social media currently encourages, how relationships are impacted when they're conducted mostly or solely over social media, and how to decrease trolling and other negative online behaviors.
  • Audience involvement, such as why we laugh and cry at movies, TV shows, and podcasts, how stories influence our sense of self, and how and why popular culture fans come together to form supportive communities.

Media Psychology in Research and Practice

While many other branches of psychology have more defined career paths, media psychology is still in the early stages of determining its scope and purview. The most obvious goal for someone who investigates the impact of media through the lens of psychology is to become a research psychologist in academia.

Given the rapid growth of technology mediating how we get to know, communicate with, and understand one another, scholars who can perform media psychology research are increasingly necessary.

However, scholarly research is not the only path for people with an interest in media psychology. The ever-expanding world of media technologies leaves many opportunities to apply media psychology in a wide variety of industry settings, from entertainment and education to healthcare and politics.

For example, people who design user experiences for everything from websites to virtual reality require an understanding of how to create a user interface that people can use effectively and efficiently.

Similarly, it's increasingly important to teach children lessons in media and cyberliteracy starting in elementary school. These are programs that media psychologists are especially well qualified to design and implement.

The Future of Media Psychology

While early media psychology research almost exclusively focused on the negative impacts and influences of media, media and technology isn't all good or all bad. It's how we use it that matters. And since media will only become increasingly ubiquitous in the years to come, it is essential we learn how to work with it to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives.

Media psychologists have an essential role to play in these developments, and while they shouldn't shy away from shedding light on the negative impact of media as it continues to evolve, they should also increase their focus on the way media can be used to increase well-being and prosocial outcomes both in academic and applied industry settings.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dill, KE. Introduction. In: Dill KE, ed. The Oxford Handbook Of Media Psychology. 1st ed. Oxford University Press; 2012.

  2. Brown Rutledge P. Arguing for Media Psychology as a Distinct Field. In: Dill KE, ed. The Oxford Handbook Of Media Psychology. 1st ed. Oxford University Press; 2012.

  3. Tuma RM. Media Psychology and Its History. In: Dill KE, ed. The Oxford Handbook Of Media Psychology. 1st ed. Oxford University Press; 2012.

  4. Fischoff S. Media Psychology: A Personal Essay in Definition and PurviewJ Media Psychol. 2005;10(1):1-21.

  5. Stever GS. Media and Media Psychology. In: Stever GS, Giles DC, Cohen JD, Myers ME. Understanding Media Psychology. 1st ed. New York: Routledge; 2021:1-13.

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.