Phones and Social Media: Friend or Foe?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY- Arlene Silva sits on her bed in her Jonsson Tower dorm room. Like most people, Silva is on her cell phone, a regular activity for her whenever she has downtime from attending classes and her job, going to the dining hall, sleeping, and doing homework. What is it about her phone that makes her reach for it every time she can? “My cell phone is probably the first and last thing I touch every day because at night I have to set up my alarm and in the morning I have to turn it off. I pretty much use my phone all the time because I need it.” Need: a pretty strong word to denote for something created only 43 years ago. Silva’s reasoning? Communication. “I use my phone to connect me with people that are not in the same space with me.” A valid point, especially considering the nature of relationships as one goes to college and cannot be in close vicinity to people they love.

Text messages, emails, phone calls, and video chats are all ways to communicate with people that are hundreds of miles away. Most of these acts can be completed with even a flip phone, and the standard corded telephone can still facilitate the most basic conversation if need be. So why is it that millions of people sign up for accounts that promise the same abilities a corded telephone could do- that of communication and social connection?

According to Statista.com, 78% of Americans had a social media profile in 2016. Skidmore College freshmen Jasper Ballot, Carolyn Smith, and Nastasia Nelson, along with Silva, are each part of that statistic. Each of their reasoning for creating accounts on sites like Facebook and Instagram was some form of persuasion from other people. Silva recalls, “It was peer pressure. One of my friends, very popular in my school, she was close to me and she said ‘Oh my god I can’t believe you aren’t on Facebook. You need to be on Facebook; everybody in school is on Facebook.’”

Ballot experienced similar pressure, but from an unlikely source: “My mom actually forced me to get a Facebook. She said I should get one for college because I was going away and would probably need it to keep in touch with people from back home and to meet new people that were going to my college. So I got one at the end of my senior year of high school to join the Skidmore Class of 2020 Facebook group, which honestly is pretty stupid now that I think about it.” When I asked Ballot why he thought this decision was unwise, he responded, “Because the Facebook group doesn’t connect you to anyone. It’s just a bunch of people posting unnecessary things and it’s honestly quite annoying and a lot of notifications.”

Despite this realization, Ballot has remained on Facebook. “I use it to keep up with my friends’ lives, to see what they are doing back home and at college. It helps our friendship because otherwise I wouldn’t know what is going on in their lives.” This seems to be a common thought amongst people on social media platforms, but shouldn’t friends know what is going on in each other’s lives through face-to-face or verbal conversation and not just status updates?

Human mental and emotional health relies on face-to-face interaction and relationships, a luxury not easily provided to college students who most likely attend school far away from the ones they love and are closest to. While cell phones have made it easier to stay in touch with people through calls, messages, and even video chats, social media platforms, being branded on displaying people’s personal lives, falsely gives the illusion that simply visiting another’s profile grants someone access to another person’s life. However, these sites are manipulated by users who craft their profiles to display only the facets of their lives they desire to share. It is easy for someone to think they know another person based on their profile, but they are really getting a carefully fashioned version of this person.

Smith admits, “I don’t accurately represent myself online. I usually just share the good things happening in my life. If you look at my pages you probably think I’m the happiest person alive, but that’s not true.” Simply checking up on a friend through social media is now perceived as an adequate way to maintain a relationship with this person, because it seems as though one has the ability to know all the happenings in the person’s life, despite the common choice to omit a lot of information on these sites. Social media filters out the raw and complex experiences that come with building and having a relationship with another human being, because simply seeing a friend’s activity online does not suffice for catching up with them.

Keeping tabs on one’s friends through social media in the modern day has come to replace the hassle of maintaining face-to-face or active verbal contact with people who live farther away. But this diminishes the most vital parts of human relationships, like self-disclosure, the revealing of intimate information about oneself with another person, which is a large factor in satisfying relationships and intimacy.

In addition to a false sense of communication, social media comes with an interesting effect on one’s self esteem. With the option of leaving ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ on people’s posts and having virtual ‘friends,’ social media comes with apt opportunity for unhealthy comparison. In the virtual world of social media where it is easy to see the differing amounts of ‘friends’ and ‘likes,’ people can easily become a slave to watching these numbers. When at the hand of waiting for a reply or a certain number of ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ to come in, people suffer a loss of agency, as the function of their relationships and own self-esteem now depends on the technology. A perceived loss of control like this in someone’s life can lead to hopelessness, depression, stress, and poor health.

Smith says, “I use Instagram and Facebook to post things that I make, like artwork and memes, and when I see that people ‘like’ it it’s like this form of feedback that is gratifying because it means they like my work. So yeah, I like getting ‘likes’ on things.” Putting this much importance on an artificial experience on the internet cannot be good. If a person feels good when they receive likes and bad when they do not, they are essentially allowing an inanimate object to command control over their self-esteem. Smith’s hobby of making artwork is no longer an activity she does for herself and likes for her own sake, but rather something she does for a community on the internet that gets to determine whether her artwork is good or not through ‘likes.’

Despite these downsides, and the high percentage of people still on social media, it seems these platforms are here to stay- at least for now. Ballot seems to sum it up best, “Even though I find these things really annoying, I think I’m sucked in at least for the time being. Facebook does that to you. They suck you in.”