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Digital media can alter our visual perception

A large part of modern life is spent immersed in a variety of digital media, ranging from websites and Zoom meetings to videogames and social media. According to a recent study led by the Binghamton University, since online content of various types often differs in terms of visual orientation from real images that we perceive in natural, urban, and suburban environments, it could significantly alter our visual perception. 

“With the continued growth of digital device use, a greater portion of the visual world experienced daily by many people has shifted towards digital environments. The “oblique effect” denotes a bias for horizontal and vertical (canonical) contours over oblique contours, which is derived from a disproportionate exposure to canonical content,” the authors explained.

In the natural world, although we are mostly exposed to horizontal phenomena such as the horizon and vertical ones like trees, we also see objects oriented at a variety of angles, such as tree branches or sloping hillsides. By contrast, in a “carpentered” environment largely manufactured by humans, many of these oblique lines are eliminated and the landscape becomes dominated by horizontal and vertical objects such as buildings, powerlines, road signs, or street lamps. Suburban environments, since they often contain small pockets of nature, are somewhere in between.

By comparing the visual orientation of various kinds of digital media with real-life scenes from natural, suburban, and urban environments, the researchers found that many types of media also exhibit the oblique effect. Although videogames aiming to imitate the natural world often (partially) succeed, pixilated videogames and social media sites – which are essentially composed of boxes of various sizes – exhibit the oblique effect to an extreme not seen in real-world environments.

“The question is: Is this shifting our overall profile of orientation sensitivity? People are spending so much time looking at these digital environments that it may become influential,” said study lead author Nicholas Duggan, a professor of Psychology at Binghamton. 

Previous research has found that over-exposure to digital content – such as playing Minecraft for several hours – can shift what our brain pays attention to visually, increasing our sensitivity to horizontal and vertical lines. While this oblique effect tends to fade once viewers stop playing the game and re-engage with the natural world, it is not yet clear how people with digital media overuse disorder are affected. 

“We’re talking about kids who were dropping out of school because they play video games every waking moment. The conjecture is that these people may be subjecting themselves to a digital environment that is substantively different from what other people typically experience on a daily basis,” explained study co-author Peter Gerhardstein, an expert in Developmental Psychology at Binghamton. 

However, further research is needed to clarify how overexposure to digital media affects visual perception. “There is a lot of benefit to online content in general. Unless you are overusing it, we strongly suspect there is no real impact here. But if you are heavily overusing digital content, you could be altering some aspects of your basic visual perception,” Gerhardstein concluded.

The study is published in the journal Perception.  


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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