Her career already spans three continents and includes a handful of degrees and dozens of publications on some of the most pressing issues in information systems (including how technology and social media affect behavior and society), but Monideepa Tarafdar, Isenberg’s Charles J. Dockendorff Endowed Professor, still has appetite for more.
“Maybe my next degree will be in the philosophy of science and technology,” she says, before laughing. “I don’t know if I have time for that, but there are so many interesting things to explore.”
Tarafdar joined the faculty of Isenberg’s operations and information management department in January 2021. In addition to teaching, she also is the department’s PhD coordinator. She grew up in Lucknow and Calcutta, India, and taught in the United States at the University of Toledo and at Lancaster University in the U.K. Her degrees include chemistry, physics, and math (undergraduate); engineering (master’s); and management information systems (PhD). Ever curious, in her spare time, she’s taken courses in poetry and literature. Since arriving in Amherst, she has sought out places associated with the area’s writers and poets, such as Amherst Writers Walk, various parts of the Robert Frost Trail, and the house of Emily Dickinson. Exploration comes naturally to Tarafdar; it fuels her work.
“Research is taking yourself to the edge constantly,” she says, “overcoming your comfort zones and looking to do something new.”
Tarafdar’s work explores how technology affects human behavior and psyche. She has published extensively on “technostress” and its paradox: technology causes strain and anxiety, yet we compulsively turn to it to try to alleviate stress. She and her co-authors developed an instrument to measure technostress using metrics such as overload, invasion, complexity, and uncertainty; the tool has been translated and sought by scholars worldwide.
“We are so caught up in everything—our email, the pings we get from work, our social media feeds—that we don’t realize that the content coming at us is not under our control. Perhaps not even how we react to it is completely under our control,” she says. She notes that although every generation might prefer a different platform (Boomers on Facebook, Millennials on Instagram, Gen Z on TikTok), most technologies are designed to hook users as long as possible. In a 2019 paper in Information Systems Journal, “Explaining the link between technostress and technology addiction for social networking sites: A study of distraction as a coping behavior,” Tarafdar and her co-authors found that a substantial number of participants who found technology stressful actually sought “refuge” within it.
In fact, the study showed people had a higher propensity to cope with technostress by spending more time on social media versus setting their devices aside and, say, going for a walk. This finding has implications for mental health and addiction.
“Normally, people’s reactions to stressful situations are to get away from them,” she notes. “If you’re seeking distraction within the medium, that can lead to addiction. You watch two hours of YouTube to try to relax, but you end up brainfogged.”
But Tarafdar is also quick to note that it’s not realistic (or even desirable) for people to try to purge technology from their lives. There are many benefits too.
In research published in May 2021 in Information Systems Research, Tarafdar explores one positive case. The work dissects how, after a fatal gang rape in Delhi, a social media-led protest engulfed India and led to dramatic change. The incident occurred December 16, 2012, a government enquiry commission headed by a former chief justice convened within a few days, and by February 3, 2013, reforms of rape laws had passed the legislature. In the paper, “Role of Social Media in Social Protest Cycles: A Sociomaterial Examination,” Tarafdar and co-author Deepa Ray, a data scientist based in Hong Kong, tracked social media posts about the incident across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, online blogs, and newspaper websites. They identified consolidation (people coming together to protest the government response to the rape), expansion (people mobilizing resources for the protest), and intensification (efforts that escalated the protest and drove global awareness.) as the endogenous activities through which the protest cycle evolved. Rather than seeing discrete “stages” of these activities, Tarafdar and Ray found they occurred simultaneously and on an ongoing basis, in peaks and troughs, to drive change.
Although this is thought to be one of India’s earliest examples of a social media protest creating change, Tarafdar says it is a prototype for how protest cycles occur today. “This is how social protest is driven—by citizens using social media ground-up, self-organizing and self-creating,” she says.
Technology erodes well-being and creates positive benefits, a dual-truth view that Tarafdar espouses in keynote speeches (“The Dark and Bright Side of Technology for Wellbeing”) and in her ongoing work.
“We cannot neglect technology,” she observes. “But we have to use it in a responsible and resilient way for greater good, to make the world a better place.”