Social Media vs. “Real Life”

There’s no question that social media has become a huge part of our existence as individuals in the 21st century. Today we see children as young as five using devices, sometimes more naturally and easily than their parents do. We don’t often question the role technology and social media play in the way we relate to others in the world because we are so used to it. The following video is a perfect example of how different social media interactions are from those we have traditionally had “in real life”:

It is clear that there’s a divide between the online social world and the real-life social world, which seems so unusual because social media was made to mimic the real social experience and simply put it online. However, this divergence puts the two at conflict by teaching us different norms to the point that the online social world and real social world become incompatible. Given the growing influence of technology in our lives, we have a very real reason to believe that social media could soon play a bigger role in what we consider to be our social lives than the traditional face-to-face social world.

We already see that kids have more fluency in social media interactions than real-world social skills. Many parts of the social media world are dominated by young people, and it shows how great a portion of their social lives they spend on it based on the social rules that have formed online. Some of them were seen in the video above and involve “following,” “liking,” and “friending” without much prior contact. Some are much more subtle: for many young people, ending a text message with a period is a signal of seriousness or upset feelings. Developing and learning social cues to be conveyed electronically leaves less room to learn face-to-face social skills.

Today’s older adults who grew up without social media represent the flip side of the coin. They spent more time and effort learning face-to-face social etiquette and have limited, if any, experience with social rules online. The stereotype is that older people feel real-world social skills are superior, while younger people spend so much time on social media that they don’t see the same value in real-world social skills. Neither type of social experience is inherently wrong, since they are simply different sets of norms followed by different types of people.

However, the collision of these worlds can be problematic. One UCLA article described a study in which sixth graders were significantly better at reading the emotions of others after a week without their phones (Wolpert). Failing to read facial expressions in real life can result in miscommunication and disconnection. This is evidence of the disproportionate role that social media already plays in young people’s socialization, and also of its negative effects. In the same way, people who don’t use social media have a hard time relating to those who do. New rules of communication spring up on social media all the time:

“When you miss bae” is not a complete sentence, and “bae” isn’t a real word. People on social media share thoughts and feelings in ways that are perfectly normal online, but would be met with confusion to people unfamiliar with the online social world.

It’s safe to say that neither face-to-face interaction nor social media are going away anytime soon. However, the rate at which social media is growing in our lives means that the conflict of the two forms of social interaction will only get worse. Kids grow up with various kinds of screens and apps, so they are naturally more comfortable communicating this way. The examples above have shown that the more “native” children are with social media, they less native they will be to interpersonal interaction. We can only assume that the miscommunication effects will be more exaggerated as time goes on.

Not only will people be more confused about social rules learned in real life and online, but people might also choose to communicate through social media primarily in the future. A society that learns two different versions of socialization side-by-side will probably favor the world of social media because it is safer behind a screen. There is less pressure when typing out content, and this becomes more and more attractive to people who are not natives of face-to-face interaction. People avoid situations they think they will fail in, and so we may see more of them flocking toward online social interaction.

To avoid these affects, people should either be well-taught and well-practiced in both forms of communication, or these should be reconciled and merge into one communication style with the same rules and norms. By bringing both styles back into one “social code” simply expressed through different contexts, everyone would be on the same page. However, the merging process would only aggravate the miscommunication already happening as these social worlds collide. Social media’s growing influence may cause these forms of communication to someday merge, despite the difficulty of the process. In the meantime, people should be taught both in-person and electronic communication as equally important skills to cultivate. They should be taught when it is appropriate to use which type of communication, and how to master it, similarly to the way children learn different languages. It would be a win-win to have children be “natives” in both technology and interpersonal interaction.

Social media is not the evil disruptor of people’s social skills; it’s simply communication at a distance with its own valid norms. We must learn how to reconcile these two forms of communication if we are to avoid the social confusion and anxiety that disproportionately presents itself through a lack of real-world social skills. Social media has made friendships possible at a distance and expanded the existing social world; its usefulness to society is certainly an advantage. However, face-to-face contact is the foundation of civilization, and we have to make sure we don’t leave too much of it behind as technology surges forward.


Wolpert, Stuart. “In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions?” UCLA Newsroom. 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

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