Is Social Media Making Us Less Social? [Part 3]
November 6, 2014 2 Comments
This is Part 3 in a three-part series on social media usage. Click here to read Part 1 on three main solutions to the overall problem. Click here to read Part 2 on the personal effects of social media.
We are the most connected generation that has ever lived. Think about all the new technologies that have been introduced in the past two decades that have allowed us to stay in touch like never before. Someone can literally get in touch with me almost any time of the day regardless of where I am in the world.
While these advances have created a plethora of benefits, the negative side effects associated with overusing them are beginning to surface. We all know that person who is constantly staring into the screen of their smartphone even when surrounded by friends and family. Or the friend who insists on taking a picture of everything they do and everywhere they go with you instead of simply enjoying the moment for what it is. The video below, while perhaps a bit over dramatic, puts our technology use into perspective.
Here are three major ways that social media is altering our ability to build and maintain interpersonal relationships:
- Constant connection reduces intimacy with other people
We’ve all done it. You’re sitting with a group of friends at lunch and there is a lull in the conversation. An awkward pause ensues. Like clockwork, your hand slips into your pocket and pulls out your phone for a quick “check” to see what’s happening. We know it’s rude, but don’t think it’s that big of a deal in the long run.
However, research has shown the opposite. In a study where 100 pairs of strangers were asked to discuss trivial topics for 10 minutes in a cafe, the British Psychological Society Research Digest found: “Feelings of ‘interconnectedness’ (rated by agreement with statements like ‘I felt close to my conversation partner’) were reduced for pairs in which a mobile device was placed on the table or held by one of them. Similarly, ’empathetic concern’ (measured by items like ‘To what extent did your conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings about the topic you discussed?’) was rated lower by pairs in which a mobile device was brought into view.”
So even having your gadget visible during a meeting with a friend, loved one, or client reduces the quality of the interaction and level to which intimacy can be built (One fun solution to this temptation: make the first person to check their phone during a meal pay for everyone). The cause of this desire to check social media is that we have become so globally connected that we have become locally disconnected. We would rather know and talk about what is happening in the Middle East than find out how our next door neighbor is doing. Instead of going deeper with the friend in front of us at the coffee shop, we want to see the latest pictures on Instagram. As an article on The Federalist says, “Millennials have been raised to think well of themselves and of other people, to be tolerant and open, but they have not been raised (generally speaking) to think in terms of serving and loving, or even spending time with, those who are closest to them—their families and their local communities, friends at school notwithstanding. If anything, they have been pushed by the media and educators (eased through using the Internet) to think bigger and broader, and to be more knowledgeable of what is happening to distant people with whom they have no intimate connection instead of developing the cherished bonds of local associations.”
The article goes on to say, “Aristotle understood that for individuals to thrive, to be happy, they need to experience the virtues of love, mutual support, and affection, all of which are born of loyalty and trust. He knew these virtues are fostered in the community and that trust is built when people freely choose to come together, everyone bringing their unique views and abilities to serve others, giving and receiving with mutual respect. Only then would the bonds of society be strong.These bonds cannot be strengthened in a global society where people are so different that they can’t form the foundations of trust necessary to foster a good life. They might want to, but human nature is what it is. The bonds of trust are most secure when we know and are known.”
So, put your gadgets out of sight and be present wherever you are.
- Constant connection makes our offline interactions more like online interactions
Digital interactions with other people are brief: 140 characters, 5 sentences, “K”. This is fine since social media was designed for quick and convenient messaging. However, this type of conversation is spilling over into our offline relationships. As Douglas Groothuis puts it, “The way we interact online becomes the norm for how we interact offline. Facebook and Twitter communications are pretty short, clipped, and very rapid. And that is not a way to have a good conversation with someone. Moreover, a good conversation involves listening and timing and that is pretty much taken away with Internet communications, because you are not there with the person. So someone could send you a message and you could ignore it, or someone could send you a message and you get to it two hours later. But if you are in real time in a real place with real bodies and a real voice, that is a very different dynamic. You shouldn’t treat another person the way you would interact with Twitter.”
Our online interactions not only change the format, but also the desired frequency of communication. As social media has become more prevalent, there is almost no excuse to not interact with your friends on a consistent basis. Instead of meeting, talking, or writing a few times a week, we are able to know where our friends are and what they are doing at any given time. There is an underlying pressure to like, retweet, or text frequently so they know we are “listening” to their digital posts.
The constant need to be connected is especially harmful for dating and marriage relationships. Since we can easily text people, texting, while exciting and convenient, quickly creates the illusion that the conversation is never over. In other words, technology makes us too available. It removes aspects of normal, healthy relationships like wondering what the person is doing, awkward pauses, missing someone, and even boredom. In contrast, everything on social media can be finely crafted and scripted. Be willing to put boundaries on how you and your significant other (or any friend for that matter) use social media and texting to communicate. Instead of these “disembodied communications” (or as Neil Postman refers to them: ghost-to-ghost instead of person-to-person), opt for more intimate methods, when possible (face-to-face, Skype, phone call, snail mail, etc). For more on this point, check out this article: “Saving the Lost Art of Conversation“
- Constant connection makes us careless with our words
Due to it’s disembodied nature, social media can make us careless with our words. Reading words on a screen, stripped of their tone and motives, often leads to misunderstanding and quick judgment. This is the primary reason I rarely get into debates online: people have a tendency to assume the worst intention behind the text on the screen (this is also why I don’t post about politics). Also, because we are able to hide behind a keyboard, we say things online we would never say in person and boldly criticize others. All of this combined can lead to relational detachment, trust issues and at the very worst cyberbullying.
We should use great wisdom and discernment when communicating online, especially when discussing hot-button issues or having a debate. When deciding whether to post or reply, first consider how others will interpret it. Proverbs 17:27 has a lot to offer on this point: “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (see also Proverbs 10:19-21; James 3:1-12). We must remember that those we communicate using technology are in fact human beings with minds, bodies, emotions, and souls. Post, tweet, comment, text, email, and blog accordingly.
Sixty-two percent of respondents in a recent survey said they hoped to focus more on face-to-face communication in the next year by decreasing technology usage. Of course, desire and action are two different things: “Even as web users report a desire to disconnect, and discussion circulates about Facebook users decreasing time spent, it remains to be seen whether social users will follow through on that promise to log off, or perhaps simply translate their time spent on social to the sites that best suit their communication needs,” the survey report said.
Readers: let’s be some of those who follow through and do reduce our dependence on social media to communicate. Invest some time into relationships with those around you. Embrace the awkwardness that can come with flesh-and-bones friendships. Set personal boundaries so you can enjoy technology without it taking over your life.
Learn It. Love It. Live It.
[image credit: Jorge Quinteros on Flickr]