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When subscribing to news alerts, recipients expose themselves to a flood of information and stimuli that cause stress in addition to evoking emotions. Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

Annoying stimuli - mobile news alerts push our buttons

As readers, we already create value for the news in the emotions the alerts evoke in us without having to read the story first.
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10 min
Published:
01.07.2020

Mobile news alerts or push notifications are messages that arrive directly on the screen of mobile devices without us having to open a news app first. When we allow news alerts, we enable a flood of stimuli to enter straight in the situation where we are. As readers, we already create value for the news in the emotions the alerts evoke in us without having to read the story first.

According to Leena Mäkelä and Mika Boedeker from Tampere University of Applied Sciences, news alerts sent by different applications are the most annoying when they seem superfluous and deceptive. At the same time, alerts that a reader finds meaningful, useful or delightful increase our appreciation of the service.

One is delighted while another goes mad

Twenty-three mobile news alert users participated in a Finnish study where they reported on push notifications that arrived from various sources for a period of ten days. The participants were given instructions on reporting how the alerts affected their life. The ages of the participants ranged from teens to people in their fifties, and they had in common an interest in current affairs and a thirst for information. The research method was a new kind of qualitative mobile ethnography. The users sent their answers directly to the Indeemo mobile app which operates like Instagram.

Around 600 responses were received in half of which an identifiable emotional response was reported. The researchers divided the range of emotions into four main categories: joy, serenity, lethargy and tension. Slightly more than half (57%) of the respondents’ emotions could be classified as positive and slightly less than half (43%) as negative.

However, why subscribe to news alerts if they cause so much negative emotion?

According to the researchers, value creation is a contradictory process where even negative emotions are important. Information about a news report can be useful even if the report evokes such negative emotions as resentment or sadness. However, all publicity is no longer good publicity at the point when too many negative emotions are aroused and when this happens too frequently. In such cases, the value of the news alert is destroyed.

The study was based on the idea of the ​​so-called service logic according to which value creation takes place in three areas: the service provider’s area, the common area and the customer’s area. With news alerts, a service provider creates only potential value for the reader. The real (user) value is always created by the reader in the customer’s area.

“News media creates potential value by designing and sending news alerts whose settings the reader can adjust in the common area. In the customer’s area, a reader independently creates various value, including emotional value, both individually and collectively. For example, he or she can be in a good mood because of a news alert about sports success and celebrate it with colleagues,” Boedeker says.

The value assigned to news alerts and the experienced emotions are highly individual and situational. Although broader generalisations about the use of news reports cannot be made based on Mäkelä’s and Boedeker’s study, it was possible to find a few different types of user groups in the small sample:

  1. Users who use several services simultaneously and are not too particular about their use.
  2. Users who spend a lot of time thinking if the news alerts are targeted to them in a good way. They tried to control the alerts themselves.
  3. The most critical users who did not want “anything superfluous on their personal screens”.
  4. Users for whom the world of news alerts was technically or culturally quite distant. This was not a negative attitude to the news alerts; it was rather a question of lifestyles.

“For some people, news alerts are an aesthetic matter. One person reported that she does not want news about a catastrophe to adorn her phone unpleasantly,” Boedeker notes.

From emotions to responsibility

News media have both journalistic and commercial pressures. In the battle for readers, increasingly many news items are written in order to evoke emotions. News alerts are filled with clickbait headlines that provoke reactions. But who is responsible for the emotions the media alerts evoke? And who decides what we are informed about?

According to Boedeker, we cannot do anything to the emotions that are evoked in the moment. Instead, we are very different in how we react to and deal with emotions. We should identify our feelings and explain them to ourselves, in other words analyse why we are feeling the way that we are. After this, we can go on to regulate the emotions and think of what we can do with them.

When subscribing to news alerts, recipients expose themselves to a flood of information and stimuli that cause stress in addition to evoking emotions. This mental load brought by information technology is called technostress, which Tenure Track Professor Henri Pirkkalainen from Tampere University has studied. According to Pirkkalainen, excessive technological stimuli are burdening regardless of whether the emotions they evoke are negative or positive. The emotions and responses are also very situational. The timing of the alerts is emphasised: even a few minutes in one direction or another can be crucial to the reader’s reaction.

“Technology probably cannot even be designed in a manner that it would always be suitable for every situation in the best possible way,” Pirkkalainen says.

A reader can actively adjust his or her news alert settings and limit the notifications received. However, this can feel arduous.

Mäkelä emphasises the role of news media as pushers of emotion.

“Of course, it is ultimately the reader who experiences the feelings, and even very mundane alerts can evoke emotional reactions. But the media has great responsibility not to manipulate people’s emotions,” Mäkelä says.

According to Mäkelä, high-quality journalistic media know that eg clickbait headlines should not be used and that objective information ought to be sought instead. However, there are some things that journalistic tools should pay more attention to as the news alerts are coming to personal screens.

“For example, if there are no age restrictions, it is worth thinking about how some really violent news might feel to a 15-year-old recipient. Media must be aware of the many different people in the target groups,” Mäkelä points out.

“If everyone is just trying to get an emotional reaction, emotions lose their meaning and the contents will become empty,” Boedeker adds.

Pirkkalainen also sees the responsibility as divided between the sender and the recipient. News services are responsible for both technical functionalities and professional content production. However, news media cannot take full responsibility for the user experience.

“It is healthy for people to have reactions so that they are not always just taken to a trip in their own comfort zone,” Pirkkalainen says.

Boedeker and Mäkelä agree that it is not possible to focus on feeding just positive emotions. Individual reactions cannot be made the sole responsibility of the media.

If everyone is just trying to get an emotional reaction, emotions lose their meaning and the contents will become empty.

The researchers Leena Mäkelä and Mika Boedeker divided the range of emotions into four main categories: joy, serenity, lethargy and tension. Slightly more than half (57%) of the respondents’ emotions could be classified as positive and slightly less than half (43%) as negative.Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

Who did we talk to?

Leena Mäkelä

  • Frequent user of news alerts and a hopeless polyuser, receives notifications in two phones. Does not let alerts interrupt anything important but likes to browse and scroll.
  • Is interested in news alerts from the point of media and culture.
  • Principal investigator in the DEEVA consortium at Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK)
  • Doctor of Philosophy, Manager at TAMK’s School of Media, Music and Art

Mika Boedeker

  • Does not want to receive news alerts or other alerts on his mobile phone. Subscribes to a paper copy of the local newspaper and watches the 20.30 television news of the Yle public service broadcasting company.
  • Is interested in news alerts from the perspective of service business. Challenges service providers by asking: Who can produce a service that gets me hooked, too? How much would I be able to and want to regulate the service?
  • A researcher in the DEEVA consortium
  • Doctor of Philosophy working at TAMK’s School of Business

Henri Pirkkalainen

  • Subscribes to news alerts interactively from mutual communication sources; does not want to follow a one-sided news flow.
  • Has studied, among other things, technostress and the lure of IT
  • Tenure Track Professor at the Faculty of Management and Business at Tampere University.

Proactive tools for regulating emotions

Teaching media literacy and computer skills can influence the way people cope with the awkward emotions, technical problems, and technological stress caused by news alerts.

According to Pirkkalainen, the amount of exposure to technology also plays a significant role. Exposure may vary depending on, for example, age or occupation. Technostress mostly concerns information work professions where the tasks are mainly performed with the help of information technology (IT). On the other hand, the computer skills of IT workers are often good, which prevents the negative effects of technostress.

Pirkkalainen says that a positive attitude towards technology and good IT skills form an excellent proactive buffer against problems. Being proactive means taking control and causing something to happen, for which a person takes responsibility. Low exposure to technology can lead to reactive means such as cussing, frustration, and withdrawing from the situation. In a reactive attitude, things just seem to happen without them being influenced, to which the person reacts instinctively instead of playing an active role. Using reactive means alone is harmful and it is of no use in problem solving.

“In order to prevent inequality, it is important that using technology is seen as a general skill and that citizens are taught proactive ways to handle problems with technology,” Pirkkalainen notes.

News alert services should be genuinely co-developed with readers in order to enable identifying the potential emotional value of the alerts. Experts on artificial intelligence and algorithms could also participate in the development work.

Life in a bubble of pleasure?

The constant increase of a user’s own choices is both an opportunity and a risk to the regulation of emotions. It is great to have the opportunity to manage our own news flow so that we mainly get news alerts on topics that interest us, which produces a sense of control and pleasure.

Pirkkalainen finds people pleasure-seeking. It is often tedious to read about topics that challenge one’s perspectives because one must try to internalise the information. Channels that support one’s own views, on the other hand, are the most pleasant to follow, but they reinforce forming so-called bubbles where other perspectives on things are not understood. In the longer term, pleasure-seeking produces increasingly many conflicts between extreme opinions.

“When services are designed, they should always be made by including contrasting perspectives, which have not been chosen by the people themselves. If this is not done, people might not even find out that other perspectives exist,” Pirkkalainen points out.

According to Mäkelä, journalists have been concerned about the possibility of people losing their sense of facts and reality because of the increasingly personalised services. But a news media cannot survive if it cannot sell stories because most news outlets do not receive public funding. However, the goal should be to produce social good.

According to the Finnish Guidelines for Journalists, headlines, leads and other presentation material must be justified by the substance of the story. The journalist also has the right and obligation to resist pressure or persuasion that attempts to steer, prevent or limit communications.

“The customisation of news alerts can be taken as far as possible, but the media must do the customisation responsibly. Users should also take control of the systems and not leave everything to artificial intelligence and automation,” Mäkelä points out.

This is what the participants in the study did.

“The study increased the self-reflection of the subjects and they started to monitor what they follow and what they feel more closely,” Mäkelä notes.

A crisis strengthens common publicity

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have followed the news more closely than usual and there have also been more news alerts.

The exceptional times have increased technostress. We are burdened by the increasing use of technology, distressing headlines and the digital leap caused by teleworking. However, there is something good in the situation.

“It seems that there is still common publicity which has emerged during the crisis. For example, Finns have a government that hold press conferences in front of television cameras at regular intervals, which represents common publicity,” Mäkelä says.

According to Boedeker, the responsible customisation of publicity would mean that the social function and democracy of news media continue to be preserved. For example, readers could use the content of COVID-19 news to choose the extent to which, how often and on which topics on the pandemic they want to receive information. But the news outlets must use their journalistic discretion and do their part in the tailoring so that the entire readership may receive the most important news.

Mäkelä wants to correct one of the common expectations concerning news alerts.

“News alerts are not a newspaper. People have the opportunity to get complementary information from several media,” she points out.

To service providers, Boedeker emphasises that customer orientation should not be just an empty phrase in the strategy. News alert services should be genuinely co-developed with readers in order to enable identifying the potential emotional value of the alerts. The value created by customers guides their consumer behaviour.

Practical development could be conducted in reader or customer panels that ponder the contents of news alerts and their significance to the customer. Experts on artificial intelligence and algorithms could also participate in the development work.

“In this way, we could combine technological and digital opportunities with information on what people feel and want,” Boedeker says.

The “News alerts in my everyday life” research project was conducted by Leena Mäkelä, Mika Boedeker and Nina Helander in 2019. It was part of the research consortium Using Data and Experiences in Novel Ecosystem Level Value Co-Creation (DEEVA).