Jochen Peter


Getting to know… Jochen Peter

Full Professor
Amsterdam School of Communication Research ASCoR
University of Amsterdam

What are you currently working on?

I am just about to start my new ERC-funded project on children and social robots. In that project, I try to develop an integrative framework of when, how, and with what consequences children interact with social robots. The key questions are: What do children expect from interactions with a social robot? What happens when they actually do and which robot affordances are decisive? How can we explain whether children learn from robots? And, perhaps most important, can children establish trust and close relationships with robots depending on particular communication features?

It is a demanding project, notably as far as technology and technological development are concerned, but I am convinced that the non-human turn in communication that we are witnessing now will challenge much of what we have done in research on children, media, and communication.

Apart from that, I am still busy with my other two research lines, sexual media content and young people’s socio-sexual development as well as online communication and its consequences for adolescents’ psycho-social attitudes and behavior.

What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?

That was the project on adolescents’ use of Internet pornography and its implications, particularly the start of it. Many senior scholars had told me that they considered it impossible to study, my friends laughed at me, and I found little of use in the then existing literature that could guide me about how to measure the key variable use of Internet pornography. Parts of the project really felt somewhat like going into the unknown. Against this background, I will never forget how it felt to have the data of a first pilot study, running frequencies and first-order correlations. Not only did we have variance, but also several pretty strong correlations, in line with our hypotheses, which also held in more complex models later. It is always a fine line between stubbornness and perseverance, and it was reassuring to see that my instincts had not misled me.

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?

In the first place, I would like to leave it to others to judge what my achievements are. After all, I am terribly biased and, to make things worse, my judgment doesn’t seem to be reliable. For example, with two articles based on my doctoral dissertation, I thought I had not only revolutionized agenda setting, but media effects research as a whole. Well, the only one who cited these articles was me.

That said, I do have some moments when I think that the research lines on online communication and Internet pornography contributed to a more nuanced understanding of what young people’s ever changing media environment means to their development.

Whether it’s an achievement,

which stands the test of time, remains to be seen.

Prof. Michael Rich noticed that he has had several adolescent patients telling him that “sexting is the new second base.” He would like to ask you how your research informs us on how normal adolescent sexual development is changing in the Digital Age and whether there are healthy, “new normal” trends that parents and clinicians can support? In my view, it would be surprising if young people did not use their media environment for sexual matters. After all, young people spend a significant amount of time with media and communication technologies and exploring their sexuality is an important part of growing up. However, our focus in research has been mostly on the presumably negative or undesirable aspects of young people’s use of new media applications and communication technologies. We still know little about positive consequences and potentially empowering experiences.

That said, sexting does present a new challenge because young people have become producers and distributors of sexual content. This raises enormous legal issues as it concerns minors and may lead, at the very least, to sincere privacy violations when the content is forwarded to an unintended audience, not to mention the negative psycho-social consequences. In this context, parents and clinicians should prepare young people for the challenges of going digital in general rather than with a particular focus on sexual content or sexting. As boyd and others have pointed out, networked digital information is persistent, can be copied, searched for, easily retrieved, and be sent out to basically everyone. In their daily media use, both adolescents and adults have not fully grasped the dimensionality of this difference from analogue information. Therefore, we should support a general digital literacy that may help young people to deal responsibly with digital information rather than focus on sexual issues alone.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?

We still struggle with describing precisely which kind of children and adolescents are susceptible to different types of media influence, both positive and negative. In addition, we struggle with capturing communication and its meaning for young people beyond a rather simple understanding of development that often does not go beyond studying chronological age. As a result of these two issues, our answers to parents and

practitioners are not as precise and nuanced as they should be.

What would be your work motto?

You don’t have to work harder, you don’t have to work smarter, you just have to work.

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?

As said above, I am biased and not particularly reliable in judgments of my own work. Currently, though, I like the 2016 review article on Internet pornography and adolescents, particularly the last part. It is a summary of what I have learned in doing research on the subject, but perhaps more important, also of the biases and limitations in my own research.

Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). Adolescents and Pornography: A Review of 20 Years of Research. The Journal of Sex Research, 53, 509–531. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1143441

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?

A panel study of large representative samples of all developmentally meaningful cohorts (from a sample of babies to a sample of the elderly), following all of the cohorts over their entire life span. We still lack a thorough understanding of long-term development and its dynamics with (new) communication and media environments, as well as of differences between age groups. That’s why I would like to do such as study. If there is still money left, I would not mind getting information on relevant biological makers as well as observational and contextual data (peers, parents etc.) to tackle bio-psycho-social models. And finally, a digital logbook that has all the digital traces of the participants would not be

bad, either, in order to overcome our eternal problems with self-reported and analogue data. Funding agencies, my contacts details can be found above!

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?

I have two pieces of advice, actually. First, you only see yourself struggle, but we all do. Frustration and failure in setting up a study, analyzing the data, or getting a paper published, are the constant companions of all researchers. I hope this puts things in perspective. Second, without high-quality academic research, there is no impact. I see, in many countries, an increasing pressure to ‘go public’ with one’s research as quickly and frequently as possible to demonstrate the impact of the studies. This development can easily put young scholars, in particular, into a conflict about priorities, not least because our work is societally relevant. I fully endorse our obligation to inform the non-academic public soundly, but it should never compromise the quality of our work.

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?

I would like to nominate Joanne Cantor for her invaluable, pioneering contributions to our field.

To download a copy of this edition of CAMmer in the spotlight click here.