The digital age has been transformed into one surrounding social media and networking. With over a billion monthly active users on sites like Facebook alone, it is hard to argue against social networking being something ubiquitous. These social sites act as gatekeepers for the harboring of online connections between users. These forms of online communication are also not relegated to specific age groups either as more than 73% of online adults today (18-65+) are on some sort of social site (Social Networking Fact Sheet). As more and more people continue to find ways to communicate in the digital world, new issues arise, however, that have previously never been faced. These issues span major sectors of our cultures and societies, from the physical to the psychological. While new technologies are ushering in new mediums and outlets for interaction, old ones are being soon forgotten. In a world where we can get a message across to millions of people with a click of a button, the most fundamental type of communication, human face-to- face interaction, is becoming less and less important. Social media can have catastrophic affects on humans as social creatures if used to replace rather than enhance, provoking false senses of connection, psychological changes to how people approach relationships, and negative emotional responses to these types of communications.
Social media is often becoming a replacement for building and establishing connections in the real world and there is something fundamentally wrong with this mentality. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of those surveyed said they text their friends at least once a day, while only 33% said they talk face-to-face with their friends on a consistent basis (Antisocial Networking). This tells us several things. Direct interaction is not being seen as the best way to communicate anymore, especially among teens, and people are not putting as much value as they once did on face to face interaction. Psychologist Sherry Turkle puts it brilliantly in describing what road we are going down by spending all of our time on online communication when saying, “We are sacrificing conversation for mere connection” (Connected, but Alone?). We are sacrificing the experiences and understanding of real world interactions that are necessary in our development for a mere connection that is established in social media, one that is superficial. These connections that are no more than surface deep are becoming sufficient replacements for face to face interaction among social media users because they are easier to establish, but have dire consequences for social development in the future. Ms Turkle also details this phenomenon very well in her talk when saying, “….So from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship” (Connected, but Alone?). It is undeniable that we as humans look for companionship throughout our lives. After all, we are social creatures; however, a text saying “I love you” is not the same thing as if someone were saying it directly to another person. It does not provoke the same level of emotional attachment, and this among other things is what is wrong with social media and why direct interaction is still so vital in our lives. For adolescents especially, the skill of maintaining real world interactions (and it can really be considered a skill with how our society is coming to approach this type of communication) is the “bedrock” of development. Real world interaction allows us to understand each other profoundly and allows us to get to know each other down to the most fundamental parts of who we are. Social media and social connections just don’t have the same level of profound connectedness. This is why the false sense of connection that comes as a byproduct of social media is so dangerous to who we are and who we end up becoming. We are in fact becoming more “connected” through social media in the very sense of the word, but this “connection” is one that we don’t want to replace our real life connections with. Social media can truly have harmful effects on us psychologically if we use the medium to replace rather than enhance and if we do not realize that the connections we are establishing through these mediums are not suffice for our social development.
With the emergence of online communication there has also been a difference in the way we approach technology when it comes to relationships and companionship. Psychologically, we have a mentality different than that of past generations because of this new technology. In Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together-Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle clearly lays out this out this idea when stating:
As infants, we see the world in parts. There is the good-the things that feed and nourish us. There is the bad-the things that frustrate or deny us. As children mature, they come to see the world in more complex ways, realizing, for example, that beyond black and white, there are shades of gray. The same mother who feeds us may sometimes have no milk. Over time, we transform a collection of parts into a comprehension of wholes. With this integration, we learn to tolerate disappointment and ambiguity. And we learn that to sustain realistic relationships, one must accept others in their complexity. When we imagine a robot as true companion, there is no need to do any work. (Turkle 60)
Although the robots mentioned in this piece Turkle’s writing refers to physical technology, it very much applies to how we see things when dealing with digital technology. We have adopted this notion that online means of connections can be substitutes for those connections that are so vital in the real world, when in fact it is simply not true. As per the Pew Research study and countless more like it, people are substituting this new form of communication for its real world counterpart, so this is not a psychological adaptation that is being taken up by a select few. With real life conversations, we learn to deal with the shortcomings and complexities of others, and vice versa. Every real life conversation is like practice or a warm up towards the game of social fluidity, if you will. This can simply not happen with any robot or any digital connection. With a digital connection you have all the time and energy in the world to project yourself as the perfect version of who you would like to be. No one has this luxury in the real world and avoiding real world interaction altogether is simply impossible. Social media has brought forth a drastic change in how we treat relationships. This mental adaptation to how we treat this form of online technology is not a path we should be going down, and one that can ultimately spell trouble for future generations. The wrong message is being created by users of these networks that think that it is alright to replace rather than enhance, which is what these networks were originally intended for. We have led ourselves to believe that online interactions themselves can be companions because in a way we feel more comfortable in these spaces. Several studies on the matter, however, have produced opposite results in how we feel emotionally when we use social media.
Social media is affecting its users not only on how they act socially, but how they feel socially when it comes to using the sites. An online social connection is supposed to evoke sensations of emotional satisfaction as this type of communication is still social in nature and we as human get satisfaction from social activities, according to advocates of these online social systems. What has been seen, however, is that the more people use sites like Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc, the more anxious and emotionally taxed they became. A study of roughly 300 people by the Salford Business School found that these social networks are exacerbating negative emotions. The surveyors found that “If you are predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed. These findings suggest that some may need to re-establish control over the technology they use, rather than being controlled by it” (Anxiety UK). More than half of the respondents reported having negative emotions after using social networking sites (Anxiety UK). This corroborates the idea that social media cannot be used to replace the interactions which take place in the real world. It may seem that these digital interactions are satisfactory on the surface, but there is something within us, much deeper than we can come to realize, that no matter how hard we try to indulge ourselves in our digital communications we cannot escape the truth that these interactions are not enough. Younger generations especially are vulnerable to the vortex that is social media. For the first time in history, face to face interaction has dropped to third behind texting and IM/FB messaging in the so called “iGeneration”, or those born from 1990-1999 (Rosen). As these younger generations are nurtured around technology and social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to get out of a digitally social driven life. With severe emotional implications in using social networks, the vast amounts of time spent on these sites should not be promoted, especially among adolescents. There are other ideas that exist, however, for the benefits of having a social life online.
Some argue that the use of social media is a beneficial tool, allowing us to be become more connected than we ever were by allowing us to reach a much greater audience. Others argue that social media allows those to build social lives where it is hard to build them in the real world. While these arguments can certainly hold to be true, the fact of the matter is that social media does not replace real world interaction and while it is of benefit to have connections with dozens of people at once, this tool often becomes a replacement for real world interaction. What has been seen is that social media simply does not produce the same levels of psychological “well being” as real world interactions have, which is why “direct” interaction is still so important, as shown by the Public Library of Science’s study . “Because we also asked people to indicate how frequently they interacted with other people “directly” since the last time we text messaged them, we were able to test this idea. Specifically, we repeated each of the aforementioned analyses substituting “direct” social interaction for Facebook use. In contrast to Facebook use, “direct” social interaction did not predict changes in cognitive well-being, and predicted increases (not decreases) in affective well-being” (PLOS ONE). The study clearly illustrates how we may perceive social media and “direct” interaction to be on equal ground cognitively speaking. Emotionally, however, the very quality of our ability to be satisfied is diminished with the use of social media and lack of real world interaction, which in turn can have harmful effects on how we develop socially. It is possible to have a sort of balance between real and digital social connections, but these online connections HAVE to be used to enhance, not replace, which has unfortunately not been the case, as corroborated by aforementioned studies.
Digital technology is evolving at an alarming rate. Face to face interactions have become the third method of communication behind text messaging and IM messaging in just a matter of a few years (Rosen). Billions of people around the world are flocking to social networking sites in hopes of creating online connections. The desire, accessibility, and interest in these digital connections have put the most fundamental type of communication, face to face interaction, in its shadow. It is almost disturbing that humans can abandon such a vital form of our social makeup without thinking twice. We want to have social interactions, but we don’t want to go through the trials and tribulations of real world interactions. It is these complexities in interaction, however, that help us to adapt to different social situations in the future and something that social media is not preparing us for. Social media can be greatly beneficial if used to enhance those relationships which we hold dear in the real world, but more often than not what is being seen is that these real world relationships are being substituted altogether by a digital experience, so these benefits end up having no merit. People would rather text message someone before talking to someone face to face, and that says something about who we have become as a society. We prefer to be interacting with a computer screen or mobile device than interact with each other directly and there is something vastly wrong with this way of thinking. In the words of psychologist Sherry Turkle, in today’s world we prefer to be “Alone together” (Turkle). As direct interaction becomes less prevalent, a false sense of connection, negative psychological adaptations to how we approach digital technology and negative emotional responses to online outlets brought on by social media are having devastating effects on who we become as social creatures.
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