As I see it, defining Media Psychology is important for two reasons.
First, a definition allows us to focus our research and contributions to the field. They are like labels for files. When we want to put something into a file, if it’s not labeled properly, it is likely to be lost or misfiled. So if I wanted to research, say, the effects of mnemonics on list item retention, where would I put it if I didn’t have a definition for cognitive psychology? Conversely, if we are hoping to add knowledge to a field, but have no specific interest within said field (e.g., I know I’m intrigued by my concept of Positive Psychology, but don’t know what it truly is), having a definition may be our only source of direction. For example, if you were told to do a research assignment on coagulation, you would need to know what coagulation was before you could even hope to produce anything intelligible.
Secondly, a definition helps everyone within a given field stay on track together. In everyday life, we see it all the time: conflicting or confused definitions cause fights. One of the first things we learn to do in Psychology is operationalize our definitions. We all work with the same definition so we are all on the same page.
I am hesitant to define Media Psychology, only because I know so much struggle went into (and continues to go into) defining Psychology as a field. If I had to make a feeble attempt at summarizing the definitions found in articles on the topic that I’ve perused, I would say: The study of how media existence and use effects intrapersonal and interpersonal communication, development, cognitive functioning, and social change.
Reeves and Anderson (1991) suggests that the combination of psychology and communication invariably make a connection in the reaction between the stimuli and the cognitive processes needed to make sense of them. In Everything Bad for You is Good, Johnson (2005) discusses the use of neuropsychological testing to show some of the effects of media on the cognitive processes. Both of these sources, among others, prompted the inclusion of cognitive functioning in my definition.
Johnson (2005) also mentions the educational power that games, for example, have. He specifically talks about teaching his nephew all about SimCity 2000 and how his nephew picked up industrial taxes within just an hour or so of introduction to the game. This is a great example of how media can effect development.
Social Cognitive Theory explains the effect of media (or ‘mass communication’) on how we process information and how we use that information to make decisions. We learn from our own personal experiences as well as the experiences of others. (Bandura, 2001) This is part of the reason I included interpersonal and intrapersonal communication, as well as social change, into my definition.
Given these articles, and numerous others, I know that my definition is incredibly exclusive and falls short of the breadth of the field, however I also believe there must be some level of specificity or the reason for having the definition may begin to falter.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media Psychology, 3(3), 265-299
Johnson, S. (2005). Everything bad for you is good. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.
Reeves, B., & Anderson, D. R. (1991). Media studies and psychology. Communication Research, 18(5), 597-600