Engaging with the Hypodermic Needle Theory

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Every semester, usually in more than one course, I have the opportunity to talk to students about what a grand theory is. I bring up the hypodermic needle theory (see http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/hypodermic-needle-theory for a nice review), also known as the magic bullet theory, regularly as I venture into explaining that no one theory can describe, explain, and predict all human behavior in a tidy package when it comes to media.

This usually ends up with my showing them the usual boxes and arrows, with “sender” sending “message” to “receiver” through “channel,” ending up with some “effect” (the basic 1947 Harold Lasswell depiction). They basically understand why this theory was pretty quickly disproven: “noise” can affect whether a communication is received (the receiver multitasking; the student next to the receiver talking at the same time; the maintenance crew deciding to use the floor-scrubbing machine outside the classroom and drowning out the sound of “sender,” as they seem to do outside my classes no matter what time of day it is or in which building I’m teaching).

But to get deeper into thinking about “limited-effects” perspective in general (see http://www.cliffsnotes.com/sciences/sociology/contemporary-mass-media/the-role-and-influence-of-mass-media for a very brief explanation), I’ve found a few recent stories that can help students engage with the topic a little further (but also leave them wondering about the hypodermic needle theory when it comes to kids and certain topics with adults, as you’ll see below).

The first story I’ve been employing happened in June last year, and oddly enough it came up again this morning in my Facebook news feed, after I’d already decided to write about this topic.* The original story was from 2014 (sample of coverage at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/prosecutors-mythological-tale-drove-girls-12-to-stab-friend/). In this piece, I show the students how these two Wisconsin girls attempted to stab to death a friend of theirs because, according to this article, “they were trying to become ‘proxies’ of Slender Man, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends” (more at http://www.people.com/article/slender-man-myth-wisconsin-girls-murder-friend). By committing this crime, the 12-year-olds said, Slender Man would “accept them and let them live with him in his mansion in the Nicolet National Forest.”

Sadly, these girls were not unique in their fascination with this mythical man; just three months later, in September, a 14-year-old Florida girl set a fire that destroyed her family’s home (http://abcnews.go.com/US/teen-inspired-slender-man-set-house-fire-police/story?id=25262814). Apparently “she told a detective she was reading an e-book called ‘Soul Eater.’ ‘There’s a part in this book where two characters get into a fight with each other,’ Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference on Thursday. ‘All of a sudden, that clicked something in her mind and she decided she was going to kill her family.’” This article also points out that this girl had been visiting a Slender Man site; “Eddie Daniels of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office told ABC News, ‘It would be safe to say there is a connection to that.’”

Now, to link this back to mass media and the Hypodermic Needle Theory (and no offense intended), I’m certainly not going to take the word of a Pasco Sheriff’s Office representative in asserting that reading Slender Man and fantasy books makes children try to kill their friends and commit acts of arson, but I will say that these stories generate some thoughtful discussion for the students and allow them to poke around in relevant theory and application. They’ve heard the endless arguments about video games “causing” kids to become violent, and how the “Jackass” movie releases resulted in an increase in injuries among people who tried and failed at some of the stunts shown in the movie. The students have formed their opinions about those media, but this is something a little different. In the first place, as I point out, these are girls being violent in a way we don’t usually see with girls. In addition, it’s an online phenomenon. “What’s going on with this?” I ask. Surely upbringing and genetics play a role, but there’s still the concept of a medium playing into it.

The limited-effects perspective allows them a way to link social behaviors with this mediated exposure to violence and, well, creepiness. I talk with them about each person’s unique levels of intelligence and education, their social interactions in their religious communities and their personal political affiliations (or those in which they were reared), and of course their personal relationships with family and friends. This leads us into discussion of the two-step flow theory (http://communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/) introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign (1944: New York: Columbia University Press). We talk about (at least for the two girls who stabbed their friend) the fact that leaders who find ideas to latch onto do emerge, and they can have a strong influence on their followers; people in public relations depend upon this theory as they figure out new products to sell.

At this point, many students determine that age can indeed have a strong influence on how a young mind can be shaped and forced into believing a communication, whether from a leader or because of a weak set of social or personal affiliations. Clearly psychology plays a part in this, but I usually have to be careful that we don’t stray too far from talk about media communication in these discussions.

But if youth is a factor, as are these personal affiliations, how then, I asked this semester, do we explain the recent Washington Post story entitled, “Sex toy injuries surged after ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was published” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/10/sex-toy-injuries-surged-after-fifty-shades-of-grey-was-published/?tid=sm_tw)? This article quoted the Consumer Product Safety Commission as saying that “emergency room care for injuries involving sex toys has approximately doubled since 2007,” and that “Much of that increase happened in 2012 and 2013, following the release of the wildly popular erotic novels in the Fifty Shades of Grey series. And the overwhelming majority of these injuries — 83 percent — require ‘foreign body removals.’”

Books are certainly a mass medium, and adults have the option to accept or reject what they’re reading; what’s up here? Do we have consider correlation versus causation in this study? Or do mediated messages about sex perhaps lower people’s resistance to the messages?

I realize that this topic may not be suitable for all college classrooms here, and again, I’m in no way trying to imply that we need to revisit the magic bullet theory in future research. It is, however, a light and funny way to get the students to revisit their beliefs — to put doubt in their minds so they have to think things through in a new way and realize that the effects of media, like the ripples of a pebble in a lake, can be far-reaching.

* For more recent information on this story, see http://abcnews.go.com/US/slender-man-interrogation-tapes-reveal-shocking-details-alleged/story?id=29117234&cid=fb_abcn_sf

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