Is social media good for you or bad for you?

It depends.  My 12-year old complains that I’m on Facebook too much.  Personally, I find a ton of value out of it.  I love seeing what friends are up to and getting great and fascinating things to read from the interesting people I know.  And, I love sharing my love of photography and of my kids in a visual medium.   So there you go.

Anyway, really enjoyed this NYT article from back in May that rounds up some of the more interesting research on social media and the changing nature of relationships:

Two statistics from the General Social Survey in 1985 and 2004 are often invoked regarding the influence of new technology on close friendships and social isolation. The average number of confidants people said they had dropped from 2.94 to 2.08 over that time, and the number of those who had none at all went from one-tenth to nearly one-quarter.

Taken on their own, these numbers are a damning indictment of internet-era connections, even if social networking was in its MySpace-Friendster infancy in 2004 and the iPhone did not exist.

But in 2011, a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania headed by Keith N. Hampton found evidence that “close social relations do not attrite with internet use and that internet users tend to have larger personal networks,” and that social isolation was actually lower in 2008 than in 1985.

Indeed.  When it comes to the decline in close friends over time, talk about correlation is not causation.  (Speaking of things changing over-time, we might as well blame over-protective parenting on cell phones).  Outside my family, nothing I like doing more than spending time with real humans who are my friends.  I honestly cannot think of social media eating into that one bit (“Sorry, Bill, no time for lunch today, gotta check Facebook and reply to some tweets”).

Other papers by Dr. Hampton argue that the internet and social media can facilitate offline social connections. One states that “internet use may be associated with higher levels of participation in traditional settings that support the formation of diverse networks,” such as visiting public spaces or knowing more people in the neighborhood. Another suggests that frequent Facebook users have more close and more diverse social tiesthan the average American — though roughly the same number of overall connections.

Sounds great.  Social media for the win.

The oft-cited “Dunbar’s number” is an average of 150 casual friends for humans (really, a range of 100 to 200). These are the people who might come to your wedding or funeral.

Within this roster, there are embedded layers of intimacy that grow smaller by a factor of three: 50 of these make the next cut to buddies, about 15 are good friends, around five confidants form our circle of trust, and finally we have an average of 1.5 people we deem our closest relationships. (Conversely, we can keep track of roughly 500 acquaintances and 1,500 faces we can match to names.)

One may presume that boasting thousands of social media friends or followers would inflate Dunbar’s number, but Dr. Dunbar said that is “absolutely not at all” the case. In a recent paper analyzing Facebook and Twitter data, and another one looking at mobile phone calls, his team determined that people still “showed the same frequencies of interaction as in face-to-face relationships” for the corresponding layers of intimacy, he said.

However, digital media channels “don’t distinguish between quality of relationships,” he said. “They allow you to maintain relationships that would otherwise decay. Our data shows that if you don’t meet people at the requisite frequencies, you’ll drop down through the layers until eventually you drop out of the 150 and become ‘somebody you once knew.’ What we think is happening is that, if you don’t meet sometime face to face, social media is slowing down the rate of decay.”

The result, then, can be a glut of old acquaintances that are not as easily forgotten online and which therefore stifle the development of newer, in-person friendships.

“Your available social time is limited, and you can either spend it face to face or on the internet,” Dr. Dunbar said. If it’s spent with people who are “remote,” whether geographically or just because they’re represented digitally, “you don’t have time to invest in new relationships where you are.”

Now that’s interesting, but I don’t buy it. At least not for me or most of the other heavy social media users in my network.  Many of those I know who love Facebook the most are extreme extroverts and take human contact wherever they can get it.  I don’t hang out with people at 11pm, and when I’m the only one in the office hallways on an afternoon, there’s nobody to talk to, but, hey Facebook is there for a quick hit of social contact.

And then there’s the whole screen vs. face-to-face issue:

As with many millennials, talking on the phone was never a big part of her routine and is now reserved for the rarest of occasions. “I’ve asked people over Gchat if they want to talk on the phone, and they hem and haw,” she said. “It can feel draining — there isn’t a casual component to it.”

There are physiological benefits to face-to-face encounters, however, that do not accrue to digital interactions or the phone. “Your blood pressure goes down, you have synchrony, you mimic your friend’s posture unconsciously,” Ms. Flora said. “It’s a rapport humans have developed over thousands of years, and you don’t get that when you only follow someone on social media.” (Skype et al. can be comparable, though, Dr. Dunbar observed.)

But now it’s common for this synchrony to be disrupted in person, thanks to the ubiquity of the smartphone. Imagine Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks” recomposed today, with the three late-night diners and counterman all gazing at screens.

“If there’s a bunch of guys at a bar together and they’re all on their phones,” Dr. Dunbar said, “they’re not doing much to trigger the endorphin system to create the sense of bondedness.”

Because members of Generation X such as Ms. Flora based the passionate friendships of their youth primarily on in-person interactions or “rambling” phone calls, when they “make the transfer” to digital friendships they “can take advantage of the benefits of it,” she said. “But for younger people, I would worry about them compromising that precious face-to-face time, not sensing or adjusting to what their friends are really thinking or feeling.”

Speaking of her generation’s possibly diminished capacity for deep friendships, Ms. Schiller issued an unintentionally resonant qualification.

“It might just be me,” she said.

A Facebook friend (acquaintance from high school, who honestly, I would never be in touch with if not for social media– but I love her posts because she married one of my good HS friends who is not into FB), posted about how a boy called to talk to her middle-school-age daughter.  So sweet.  Any many commented on the fact that, hey, not just a text message.  I did love those long rambling teenager phone calls.   I’m actually surprised to find my wife and I text each other all the time.  But, a lot of it is just little snippets of connection that we just didn’t have before our Iphones.  It’s actually added to our connectedness.  It’s not like we’re texting over dinner.

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff and plenty of food for thought.  Friend me ;-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Is social media good for you or bad for you?

  1. Nicole K. says:

    I know I’m weird because I spent 20+ years pretending to be someone I wasn’t and didn’t want to be. On top of that I had a medical condition that made most people not want to be around me for a number of justified reasons that I completely understand and agree with. So I basically learned how to be comfortable having no one in my life; I even kept my parents at arms length and lied to them regularly because I didn’t want them to know how I really lived.

    Now that those two issues have been dealt with, I’m now dealing with the fact that I’ve conditioned myself to actually like and feel comfortable being alone. My narcolepsy is under control, but I still get very tired very quickly if I break from a pretty regular routine or have to deal with a lot of noise. Prior to moving back to NC I was taking steps to try and stop living such an isolated existence.

    Then I moved back here and felt like I had to basically stop doing that until I could move back to somewhere where I didn’t feel like I made 2/3 of the people I come across visibly uncomfortable. So for me, social media and communicating on the internet is a way that I can feel like I’m at least getting some interaction with other people that I can get without putting up my shields and tamping down my emotions. And I’m very glad I have that outlet because it really does help.

    I moved back here because I needed to and it was basically my only good option. I’m glad I did it. But I quickly learned that a progressive, tolerant southern city is not the same as one in the mid atlantic or further north, at least when it comes to being able to accept being around transgender people. So social media helps remind me that it’s not like that everywhere and this is a temporary, short, and necessary chapter in my life and I can get through it and then leave as quickly as possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: