Southeast Asia and the Effects of Social Media on Culture

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Emma Templeton | 11/02/2022

What happens when face-to-face interactions are replaced by online interactions and when the screens in our pockets become more compelling than the world around us?

I spend a lot of time worrying about technology.  In another era, I would be wearing a tin foil hat, fretting about the advent of the radio.  In this era, I worry about social media.  No foil hats yet.

Each day, people post approximately 400 million tweets to Twitter, share 80 million pictures on Instagram, upload 12 years worth of video to YouTube, and share experiences via countless other social media services.  Social media is undoubtedly changing the nature of our social interactions and undoubtedly changing how we engage with the world around us.  Are these changes good for us?  Bad for us?  Does it depend?  (Probably).

As a social psychologist, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to experimentally test whether or not my anxieties have any basis in reality.  My colleagues and I recently examined how media changed the way people experienced a tour.  We asked a group of participants to take a tour in one of three conditions: without their phones, while taking pictures, and while taking pictures and then posting those pictures to their personal Facebook accounts.  What we found might not surprise you.  Participants who took pictures – either with the purpose of posting them or not – reported feeling less engaged in the tour overall and had worse memory for contents of the tour, compared to participants who did not take pictures at all.  We then conducted a second experiment where we asked participants to take the tour in pairs – thus turning a solitary experience into a social experience.  One member of each pair was always without a camera while the second member was either also without a camera, taking pictures, or taking pictures and then posting those pictures to their personal Facebook account.  What we found was surprising – at least to us.  Pairs of participants with one member posting to Facebook reported liking each other more than the other pairs of participants.  Incorporating social media into their experience somehow increased the social connection between these pairs during that same experience.

To be clear, we cannot understand the full impact that media has on our experiences from these few studies.  My anxieties will therefore remain intact until further research is conducted.  However, I hope to illustrate that (i) it is possible to study these questions in a controlled setting and (ii) our intuitions about the effect that social media has on our social interactions are not always intuitive.

These questions were on my mind during a recent trip to Southeast Asia.  I travelled with my good friend from college who is now an officer in the United States Marine Corp, stationed in Japan.  I imagine that my friend drew on her experience in military logistics when she scheduled our trip.  In seven days of travel, we took eight flights and visited three countries.

We spent time in Saigon, Vietnam, Siem Ream, Cambodia, and Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand.  I enjoyed learning about the cultural differences between each of these countries but what struck me most was one major cultural similarity: The prevalence of smartphones.

I saw little girls texting on the back of motorcycles, tuk-tuk drivers laying in their carts passing time on Facebook, monks taking selfies, and groups of children playing games on their individual iPhones.  Seeing the phenomena that I spend so much time thinking about in an entirely different context blew my mind.  Every time I saw someone use a phone, I had the weird impulse to pull out my own phone to take a picture of it – a fitting illustration of how media has affected my own experience.

I was fascinated by the prevalence of smartphones in these countries because of the amazing opportunities they present for research.  Take Cambodia. According to a 2015 study, 39.5% of phone owners own a smartphone – a 51.7% increase from 2014 and almost a 100% increase from 2013. A third of Cambodians have access to the Internet and Facebook, with 80% of this group accessing Facebook exclusively though their phones.

In Cambodia, it would be possible to study the impact of smartphones as they are being introduced into a country.  Researchers could compare people who have never had access to a smartphone, people who recently got access to a smartphone, and people who have had access to a smartphone for several years.  It would be nearly impossible to make this same comparison in the United States given that 68% of adults already own a smartphone and every generation is now familiar with them. 

The fact that smartphone use is becoming more prevalent in these countries also means that researchers can conduct cultural studies on an unprecedented scale.  For example, comparing how people from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand each engage with the same social media platform could enable researchers to identify subtle cultural differences that may not have been detected previously.


Finally, travelling to these countries made me very aware that media is changing the way we engage with other cultures.  I’d like to believe that having access to media increases our engagement with other cultures.  After all, media allows us to talk to people all over the globe, facilitating interactions that could not have happened otherwise.  However, it is also possible that having constant access to one’s own culture inhibits us from engaging with the new one that we find ourselves in.  Anecdotally, I saw more evidence for the latter.  In every hostel I stayed in, I encountered tourists loudly obsessing about their photos and their likes.  The guides we travelled with have learned that their patrons value pictures and offered to take our phones to photograph our experiences for us.  The time my friend and I spent searching for a café with wifi was done at the expense of exploring the beautiful countryside just outside.  


But the plural of anecdote is not data.  Controlled experimental designs are necessary to investigate the effect that social media has on the way we engage with other cultures.  As our world becomes more and more connected, these types of experiments will become more and more important to conduct.


I know that I will continue to investigate the impact that media has on our social connections in graduate school and beyond. My trip to Southeast Asia forced me to think about these questions in a much more global way.  Sooner or later, media will impact every culture.  By capitalizing on the fact that the pace of impact will vary from culture to culture, it will be possible to examine the impact of media over time.  As more and more people join social media platforms, it will be possible to investigate culture in ways that we’ve never been able to before.  Finally, it will be crucial to understand how media changes the way we engage with other cultures – both when we travel and when we’re at home.


Social media can be harnessed for good.  But we need to understand how it affects us first.