In the digital age, people are giving less attention to face-to-face interactions with their loved ones and more attention to their interactions on Facebook. Replacing casual conversation with online connectivity is a growing practice for digital natives who were raised in the internet era and have not known a world without technology. For people a part of older generations that interacted before the age of smartphones, online chat rooms and in-person chats are less interchangeable. Transversely, adolescents and adults that utilize social media claim positive benefits easily available to them through social networking platforms, such as professional networking and online dating. Because social media is both a form of media and a source of entertainment, it is impossible to make blanket assertions such as “social media are bad for us, period,” or “social media are a positive necessity.” As an aspiring media professional, working for publications and organizations through social media, I see the benefits of a digital marketplace. However, I believe that social media have a negative impact on a crucial segment of the human experience: face-to-face communication. Frequent social media use leaves its users feeling disconnected with reality, altering their perceptions of themselves and those around them. As technology improves, it becomes unrealistic to quit social media, with its romantic and networking perks, it seems like a crutch in the modern era. Social media users with frequent digital interaction can be negatively affected in their interpersonal communication skills and their mental health.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers details a small Italian community in Roseto, Pennsylvania, whose population had significantly reduced rates of heart attacks, alcoholism, and suicide that sociologist John Bruhn attributed to increased social interactions. In an article for NPR, contributing editor and the book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker Diane Cole states the positive effects of in-person connections from a psychological standpoint. “When you are getting together face to face, there are a lot of biological phenomena: Oxytocin and neurotransmitters get released, they reduce stress and allow us to trust others. Physical contact unleashes a whole chain of events that make us and make the other person feel good, and affects our health and well-being,” (Cole).
Online distraction is taking away from crucial in-person interpersonal relationships. CNBC published a study by Flashgap, a photo-sharing application, that found out of its 150,000 users, “87 percent of millennials admitted to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by their phone[s].” The more prevalent online interruption is in millennial’s social lives, the more detrimental it becomes. Clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that prioritizing online connections over in-person conversation can wreak havoc on a young person’s social development. In an interview with NPR, Turkle asserts that as people move away from in-person interaction, they lose interpersonal communication skills with their peers, like negotiating, interrupting emotions, and navigating confrontations, (Gross).
Not only does social media make it seem harder to keep up with every person social media users are connected to online, scientists are claiming that it is physically impossible for our brains to deeply maintain those hundreds of friends on our social media accounts. Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar posits 150 as the maximum number of meaningful relationships that the human brain can manage. Consider the amount of Facebook friends, Twitter and Instagram followers, and Snapchat contacts millennials interact with, and the numbers are much higher than the suggested maximum of 150. According to Pew Research, average number of Facebook friends for adults is 338. “Younger users tend to have significantly larger friend networks than older users,” the report states. There is no wonder that millennials are having trouble keeping up with social interactions; they cannot physically give so many different people their undivided attention every day. LSU sophomore and former social media user Evan Garza cites the overwhelming number of online connections as a reason for quitting. “I started to realize that the majority of the people I was keeping up with on Snapchat were people that I didn’t really talk to in real life. It seemed kind of pointless. . . One thing that I have gotten from quitting social media this past month is a lot of time back. I was so bored I actually applied for a job,” (personal interview).
Social media and the rise of the internet are attributed to current adolescents’ increasing reports of poor mental health. Professor of psychology at San Diego State University Jean M. Twenge describes in an article for The Atlantic the social generational divides between those who were born between 1995 and 2012, and their predecessors: millennials, generation ‘X’ and baby boomers. The first noted generational shift that Twenge noted was that modern-day adolescents prefer to stay “in,” at home, connected to their devices, than meet up with friends outside of their homes. “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009,” (Twenge). Although this generation appears physically safer than previous generations, Twenge argues that they are on the brink of a mental health crisis. At the generational level, when teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common, she states. Teenagers’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high ever since (Twenge).
The effects of heavy social media usage on younger millennials is concerning, not only because of the emotional impact that it has on adolescents, but also because of its persistent presence. Some scholars believe that social media is addictive. In an article for Time Magazine, editor Ellen Seidman compares the sounds of social media notifications to the classical conditioning of Ivan Pavlov and the dog’s bell. Every time the bell sounded off, the dog would receive a treat and start salivating. Toward the end of the trial, Pavlov sounded a bell but did not give the dog a treat. The dog still salivated on that bell ring because it was associating the sound of a bell with a dog treat. The same goes for smartphone users and the rings of their phones. Our bodies react to that stimuli, making it harder for some users to ignore. Digital marketing and branding expert Bailey Parnell also sites the release of dopamines when a text or social media notification alerts phone users as a base for social media addiction. Parnell says that she did a social media purge for four days while on a family vacation and experienced what some refer to as a phantom-buzz, the feeling that your phone is sounding off notifications, even when you are not with it.
In a TEDTalk with Ryerson University, Parnell asks the room, “if you have thought about deactivating your social media accounts, raise your hand.” Almost the entire audience responded accordingly. Parnell said that she has seen that response often, with adolescents wishing to forego social media usage, the main reasons against signing off was the fear of missing out. Garza says one negative from his social media cleanse is that it is harder for him to keep up with current events because social media made news gathering easily accessible.
To combat his self-perceived social setbacks, technology journalist and The Verge editor Paul Miller tried his own social experiment by spending an entire year offline: no text messages, no emails, and no social media. He reported his experiences in a TEDTalk. He recalls talking with his sister, who told him that she was grateful for his technology break because she felt that he could finally be attuned to their conversations, and that he was not distracted by a technology “wall.” “Without the internet, I felt that I could be with a person in a much more personal, much more intense way.” Toward the end of Miller’s TEDTalk, he tells the story of his nephew who incorrectly tells him the functions of a light saber. Miller, a Star Wars fan, thought the moment was notable enough post about on Twitter. One of his colleagues told him that if he was completely engaged online, he would have missed that moment with his nephew, however, if he was completely engaged offline, his followers would have missed it. Both Miller and (other TEDTalk speaker) finish their talks with the implication that social media is not inherently good or bad, nor is it the source of our personal problems, just an enhancer. Social media doesn’t make people say evil things, it just makes it easier for them; social media does not create social anxiety, rather, gives its users heightened access to friends’ “highlight reels,” showing only the highlights of their lives, and creates fear of missing out.
Social media comes with its interpersonal drawbacks, but there are also significant benefits to be connected on social media, from meeting romantic partners to networking with future employers. According to a study by University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, between 2005 and 2012, one-third of married couples in the US met online, a bigger percentage than meeting by work, friends, and school combined (Ansari 79). An even larger percentage of LGBT couples document meeting online at 70 percent. Although social psychologists see the growing capacity of mutual friends and online followers as a daunting obstacle for establishing and maintaining meaningful friendships, these large numbers of “weak ties,” or acquaintances, are seen as an asset in the business world. LinkedIn, a social networking site based providing its users with job opportunities, utilizes this aspect of social media for professional networking.
With its growing presence in our daily lives, social media usage appears inevitable. How can we preserve our mental health and prevent social media from disrupting our previous relationships? Seidman of Time magazine offers the practice of “disconnecting,” taking time out of our day to put aside our phones to focus on ourselves, and the people that are around us. As far-fetched as Diane Cole’s headline “Forget Facebook, Abandon Instagram, Move To a Village,” seems, she states that we can create our “village effect,” by paying attention to the people around us and give more thought and energy into our conversations and connections, as opposed to being distracted by whomever is waiting on the other side of the screen.
Social media is a hybrid between acting as a media platform and as a way to socially connect with others. Its users should be aware of the way they use social media in these aspects. From a media perspective, consumers have to be aware of the implications of what they see and read on their social networking sites. When evaluating news sources, consumers must be active filters in deciding what sources are reliable, and the same follows for social media. Users must remember that what they see on these sites are others’ highlights, and should not be compared to their day-to-day averages. Likewise, social media users should be aware of how the “social” aspect may be affecting their face-to-face connections. Social media users should prioritize the people that they are with presently over the people that they are with online.
Ansari, Aziz, and Eric Klinenberg. Modern Romance. Penguin Books, 2016.
Cole, Diane. “Forget Facebook, Abandon Instagram, Move To A Village.” NPR, NPR, 14 Oct. 2014.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: the Story of Success. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Gross, Terry. “In Constant Digital Contact, We Feel 'Alone Together'.” NPR, NPR, 17 Oct. 2012.