It is a phenomenon that can be observed in all industrialized societies that media use is connected with demographic factors. As a rule, people from different social backgrounds also use the media differently. On the other hand, people from similar social backgrounds also show similarities in their use of the media. Thus, there is a significant difference between the way women and men, older and younger people, and people with higher or lower levels of education use the media. Similarly, people from different ethnic groups differ in their use of the media. Another factor that is closely linked to media use is opinion leadership.
There are some examples of the influence of socio-demographic factors that can be observed in almost all industrialized countries. Men and people with a low income, for instance, spend more time watching television, while people with a higher standard of education tend to read newspapers. The importance of age for media use is particularly well documented (van der Goot et al. 2006). Analyses conducted in the USA by the General Social Survey and in 12 European countries by the European Social Survey basically show similar results for the use of television. With the exception of Romania, people from the age of 60 (in the USA) or 65 (in Europe) use television more frequently than all other age groups. On the other hand, older people use the Internet far less frequently than younger people (Loges & Jung 2001).
From the point of view of the communication sciences, the mere description of sociodemographic variables of media use is unsatisfactory. The question that needs to be asked is what we really know once we have established, say, that women give preference to different types of media than men. We cannot part from the assumption that gender has a direct influence on media use. Women do not show a specific behavior in their use of the media due to the mere biological fact that they are women, but because their sex is linked to other factors. The question we are facing is therefore not a biological but rather a sociological one; it is a question of gender, not a question of sex. An example given by Westerik et al. (2005) shows that pertinent analyses can be very complex. They observed that women start watching television earlier in the day than men. This, however, is mainly due to the traditional role allocation. Women spend more time at home and therefore can watch television more often. If this is taken into account, analyses will show that in similar circumstances – that is, when they are at home – men also start watching television earlier.
This example shows that socio-demographic variables are indicators for specific social situations and that the relation between them and media use is a complex one. An analysis of how social variables affect media use requires a theoretical analysis of the factors that motivate people to use the media in the first place and allow people to use media. If these factors are related to specific social situations they can explain the relationship between socio-demography and media use. Based on these considerations, we can distinguish some characteristics of social situations that are relevant to media use: needs, media images, resources, competence and skills, values, and expectations related to social roles.
The exact nature of the relation is a contentious issue. One approach is the deterministic model, i.e., that media use results from the social situation with a certain inevitability. In a different approach, media use is not interpreted as the result of a social situation but rather as part of a way of life. Modern sociological approaches are based on the assumption that social stratification can no longer be seen as the main structural characteristic of postindustrial societies. A variety of different life plans and ways of life has taken the place of a clearly recognizable social structure. This process is usually described as individualization. In fact, a new social order is developing that on the one hand allows the individual more freedom of choice, but on the other hand also forces the individual to make a choice and, thus, creates a need for guidance.
This social order can be described on the basis of aesthetic schemas of everyday life. Due to an improved standard of living, striving for the satisfaction of material needs has given way to the wish for an aesthetically satisfactory way of life, for a beautiful life. Not surviving, but living a fulfilled life has become the most important issue. The main characteristic of a so-called experience society (Erlebnisgesellschaft) is that experience orientation is its basic collective motivation (Schulze 1992). Individuals are offered more and more options in their everyday life. The choices they make are usually not factual but aesthetic or a matter of taste. Everyday activities are seen as a sign and expression of personal taste and style. This lifestyle is at the same time a means of distinction and a means of integration. It affects different aspects of life. It is reflected in the choice of clothes as well as leisure activities, the consumption of culture, and also in media use. Groups that share the same aesthetic everyday life schema can be identified empirically and distinguished from other groups that share a different schema. Aesthetic everyday life schemas are collective codes of experience. They limit the infinite number of possible aesthetic everyday life behaviors, including media use, and can be identified by members of the collective.
Thus, new groups, i.e., new social structures, develop and options multiply in such a way that individuals have to choose and combine them to “compose” their lives. Eventually milieus emerge that can be identified and differentiated according to their aesthetic everyday life schemas (Schulze 1992). However, as Bourdieu (1984) has shown, it is an illusion that lifestyles can be freely chosen. In fact, lifestyles are dependent on variables of social stratification. According to Bourdieu (1984), social structure is based on three sorts of capital: the economic, the social, and the cultural capitals. Social classes are formed according to the availability of these and can be differentiated according to their cultural customs and expressions of taste, and therefore also according to their media use.
The uses and gratifications approach is a standard theory of media use (Blumler & Katz 1974). This theory is based on the assumption that the media are used for the satisfaction of needs and therefore compete with other sources of gratification. It is assumed that users are aware of their motivation and relate specific media contents to their perceived individual needs. In other words, the users themselves decide for what purposes they use the media. Rosengren (1974) differentiates between the terms “need” and “problem.” Problems result from the interaction of individuals, situational needs from the structure of society (Rosengren 1974, 270f.). A problem can therefore be described as a special kind of need that is dependent on the factors mentioned above. The term “need” refers to needs in general as part of human nature, whereas the term “problem” refers to the different forms of specific individual and situational needs. This makes clear that the occurrence of needs is related to social situations.
The need for escapism occurs more often in situations that are perceived as stressful. There is, for instance, an obvious connection between a person’s need to relax and their workload. It can be assumed that the less control a person has of their work and the more alienated from their work they feel, the more they will turn to the media to satisfy compensatory needs. Some authors assume that older people have less need to relax or seek distraction because they are retired and do not suffer from work-related stress any more (van der Goot et al. 2005). Similarly, the different use of the Internet by older and younger people can be explained by their different needs. Older people use the Internet with a small set of motives. Young people, on the other hand, use the Internet for social interaction, which for older people is less important. Older people go through “a process of disengagement” (Loges & Jung 2001, 540). While younger people see this as useless isolation, it is quite possibly just a normal process for the elderly.
Jeffres (2000) describes the interdependence of ethnic integration and ethnic media use. Members of ethnic minorities use ethnic media more intensively if they are deeply rooted in their ethnicity. This leads to a strengthening of their ethnic identity. It can be assumed that in a minority situation the need to strengthen the ethnic identity will be pronounced and that this is the reason for ethnic media use. “Ethnic media appear to act as vehicles that help ethnics to retain attachment to their culture over time” (Jeffres 2000, 522).
Apart from needs, expectations of the media play an important role in the uses and gratifications approach. People turn to the media expecting them to be able to provide the gratification they are looking for; that is, on the basis of media images. If there is a specific need and the expectation that the media can meet this need, we will find a motive for media use.
Age, or rather the fact that a user belongs to a specific generation, can play an important role here. Specific age groups share specific expectations of the quality of the media. This expectation that the media will be able to meet certain needs is acquired; that is, it results from the individual’s media biography. It is influenced by key events in the media as well as dominant media contents during biographically relevant periods of life (Dimmick et al. 1979).
Human behavior, also in regard to media use, cannot be understood only from the underlying motivation. We also need to take into consideration what possibilities an individual has to act and what restrictions they are subject to. In respect to media use, this means that a potential media user is not completely free to use the media but is restricted by a possibly limited offer, and by laws and other normative regulations. The most important restriction is the cost that is connected with certain actions. Media use is regarded as a low-cost situation. Nonetheless, in specific situations, media use can be limited by lack of available relevant resources. In the communication sciences cost–benefit analysis has played a role particularly in the analysis of information obtainment (Downs 1957; Atkin 1973). Here, costs for information obtainment include monetary costs as well as time and cognitive effort (Atkin 1985).
Resources are external possibilities to act. They are not personal characteristics of the individual, but the individual can make use of them. Usually resources can be used up and tapped again. Their influence on media use is twofold. On the one hand, the potential media user must have access to necessary resources to be able to afford media use. With regard to the resource of time, for instance, this can be problematic for many potential users. But also material resources often present a problem. It is currently being discussed whether large parts of the world population are excluded from the use of new media technology due to lack of material resources. On the other hand, available resources dictate what other possibilities there are to meet specific needs besides media use. The connection between resources and socio-demographic variables is obvious. Factors like employment and income determine time and financial resources. There is an evident connection between income and use of daily papers. Higher income leads to more frequent use of daily papers. This also remains true when the influence of education is taken into account (Lauf 2001). It seems that a certain income is required to be able to afford a daily newspaper.
Competence And Skills
Competence and skills are, as opposed to resources, internal possibilities to act. They form part of the individual’s personality. As a rule, competence and skills can be acquired or neglected, but they cannot be used up. There is a rather simple connection between competence and skills and media use: a user must be able to read to use a newspaper, or must be an experienced and skilled reader to be able to read more demanding literature. The ability to read, however, is closely linked to age and level of education, i.e., to demographic factors. Nussbaum et al. (2002) assume that the development of communicative competence is a lifelong process. One of the reasons for the – lately weakening – connection between the level of education and newspaper use probably is that people with a higher standard of education are more competent readers.
Blumler (1985, 50) stresses the influence social values have on media use. The expected effect of media use has to be looked upon favorably by the user. It does not suffice to expect to be entertained and amused by the media; entertainment itself must be seen as something valuable. Therefore, every decision to use the media is a value judgment. Moreover, specific media contents or manner of presentation can clash with the moral values of potential users.
It is reasonable to assume that some users may expect some gratification from pornography in the media but reject it on moral grounds. Different social groups can have different sets of values. Social milieus often share homogeneous moral concepts that differ from those of other milieus. Age is also an important variable. Different cohorts have experienced a different socialization and have been formed by different biographies, resulting in different moral values. Different ethnic groups in modern multicultural societies in most cases have distinct sets of values.
Age, Gender Roles, And Expectations
Different demographic variables are connected with different social roles. We use the term “gender” to describe the fact that sex is not merely a biological, but more importantly a social fact, as it allocates different roles to men and women. Old age and youth are also in a certain sense social roles. Social roles lead to expectations regarding behavior. Society defines what the socially accepted behavior is for an older or younger person, a man or a woman. Dimmick et al. (1979) suggest that media gratification is influenced by expectations regarding socially accepted behavior of people in a specific “life span position.” Such expectations can also influence media use.
Video games, for instance, are better suited to meet a boy’s need for inclusion and affection than a girl’s. The need for inclusion and affection is equally strong in both sexes. However, it is socially less acceptable for girls to play action games and therefore using these games is not as satisfactory for them as it is for boys (Lucas & Sherry 2004).
A Special Case: Opinion Leaders
Opinion leadership is distinct from socio-demographic factors like age, gender, and education. While these, as shown above, describe a specific social situation, opinion leadership describes a social position in a given social context. Lazarsfeld et al. (1944), who discovered this phenomenon, parted from the assumption that opinion leadership exists in all social classes and that it is therefore independent of demographic factors like education and income. Research, however, shows that there is a positive correlation between opinion leadership and socio-demographic variables. This might be due to a measurement error. It is possible that opinion leadership measurement is more accurate in higher social classes, but is inadequate to assess opinion leadership in the lower classes.
Opinion leaders use the media differently. They use the information media more frequently and more intensively than others. However, the relation between opinion leadership and media use is a special one. Media use is constitutive to the exercise of opinion leadership. Opinion leadership appears to be not the condition for media use but its cause. In this aspect it also differs from demographic variables. Using the media does not change a person’s sex or age or the fact that a person belongs to a certain generation. Under certain circumstances media users can become richer or more educated through media use.
This article argues that demographic variables are useful to describe mass media audiences, but without a theoretical framework those variables do not work as explanatory concepts. Demographic variables are indicators for specific social situations. These situations differentiate in regard to values, resources, competences, media images, needs, and social expectations. These are the actual explanatory factors at work behind the demographic variables.
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