This past February, Facebook celebrated its 10th birthday. According to its website, Facebook now boasts more than 1.28 billion active users, and on any given day, more than 60 percent of those users access the site. Facebook’s stated mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
But has Facebook, in fact, increased our social connectivity? Facebook and other forms of social media have inarguably enhanced the dissemination of information and allowed for more frequent, albeit often superficial, exchanges between people. However, the reliance on Facebook for connectivity has raised considerable concerns about its impact on the authenticity of the human experience.
Ironically, in a technologically advanced world in which we are able to keep in touch at all times with all people, citizens of the United States are feeling more alone and disconnected. According to the General Social Survey in 1985, before the dawn of social media, Americans reported having on average three confidants — the people with whom they discussed vitally important personal matters. By 2004,the average number of reported confidants had dropped to two, and the most commonly offered response was “zero confidants.” In 2010, the Pew Research Center collected comparable data on “core discussion networks” and found the average number of reported confidants remained at two.It seems that despite the use of communicative technology to connect, people are actually feeling more socially isolated.
The frightening prospect of face-to-face interaction
At this 10-year mark for Facebook, I think it is fitting that we critically examine the impact of interpersonal technology on our real-life social connections. As a counselor and researcher, I decided to engage in dialogue with young adults, a particularly “plugged in” generation, about their use of social media. For the past year, I have been learning directly from young adults about what is working for them and what is not. I spoke with 55 college students, 30 in a focus group setting and 25 in individual interviews, and this article highlights some of the most interesting and relevant findings from those conversations.
Certainly, some individuals use social media in a way that enhances their connectivity, while others supplant their embodied interactions with technology. This made me wonder about the importance of preference. Therefore, I began by asking this group of young adults if they preferred social media or face-to-face communication for social interactions. Their responses were intriguing.
On the surface, almost everyone expressly stated that they preferred face-to-face interactions. However, their stories quickly revealed that this “preference” was not that simple. They knew, at least intellectually, that the best way to communicate was face to face. At the same time, they felt pressured by the spontaneity of embodied conversation and felt interpersonally vulnerable when engaging with someone face to face. Therefore, using social media was an easy and convenient way to bypass those challenges while still getting their interpersonal needs met. In fact, some of these young adults admitted to engaging with social media while in the presence of others so they would appear occupied and unavailable for conversation. They also confessed that they were particularly likely to use social media to address conflicts with others — even if that person was physically present in the same room with them.
Not surprisingly, these young adults acknowledged wishing they felt more competent when relating to others face to face. Unfortunately, being “out of practice” created a vicious cycle in which lack of social competence led to greater dependence on social media use, which led to even more interpersonal awkwardness.
Implications for counselors
What does this mean for counselors? At its most fundamental level, the counseling experience is based on the ability to build a therapeutic alliance between client and clinician. And by nature, most clinical experiences are intense, face-to-face, interpersonal interactions. Initiating counseling is a brave endeavor for anyone, but if young adults increasingly avoid face-to-face interactions, especially if those interactions might be emotionally charged, how much more difficult will it be for them to reach out for help?
Furthermore, as clinicians, we see the value and merit in working through difficult experiences as simple as not knowing what to say in a given moment or asking someone out on a date and being rejected. Out of these events, we develop skills for dealing with difficult times, surviving painful disappointments, working through conflicts and directly facing the inevitable challenges of close relationships. However, if the current generation uses social media to bypass these less consequential growth experiences, how will they build these skills so that they have something to draw from when the difficulties and consequences are higher and more intense?
Finally, we know that meaningful interpersonal connections are important to our psychological health. Choosing more online interactions to meet the need for interpersonal connection allows users to avoid the difficulties of embodied relationships. Relationships in real life are often messy, frustrating and complex. Friends and loved ones are not always available to us, relating to others in the moment requires give-and-take, and our encounters sometimes leave us hurt and disappointed.
Online relationships, on the other hand, provide opportunities for less risky interactions that also require less giving of oneself. An online interaction does not require that we compromise our needs or delay gratification because friends are always available on Facebook, and when we’re finished with them, we simply click off. Choosing this one-dimensional interpersonal relationship potentially reduces online friends into self-objects that unidirectionally feed the user. Concern for the other is not required.
Social media motivations
My discussions with young adults about motivations for using social media resulted in answers that paralleled those about preference. Initially, they acknowledged their desire to keep in touch, to stay current and to take advantage of the ease and convenience of this technology — all answers that could be anticipated. However, upon further discussion, a tacit motivation for the use of social media emerged — the desire to psychologically protect themselves through enhanced control of social interactions and self-presentation. For example, I discovered that many college students use social media to covertly learn about others through passive observation and Facebook “stalking.” Then, using the information they have gathered, they approach these individuals in a manner that is likely to be well received, thus increasing the odds of interpersonal success.
Covertly learning the personal details of someone else’s life changes our experience of emotional intimacy. According to a 2010 article by Max van Manen, intimacy is created when there is a purposeful revelation of secret parts of oneself to another individual within the context of a trusted relationship. Facebook, however, reveals and makes public what was once personal, thus changing the meaning of privacy and intimacy. A continuous stream of social media updates allows a person to know what another is doing in a way that feels intimate or familiar, as if two people have spent all their time together. However, feeling emotionally intimate is not the same as being emotionally intimate, nor is feeling familiar the same as being familiar. Social media makes it easy to confuse the two.
Using Facebook is a bit like rummaging through a person’s medicine cabinet. You can look through either and learn a great deal about another person, some of which is quite private. However, it is fundamentally different to learn something about someone in this manner versus experiencing a purposeful revelation that requires vulnerability in the telling and empathy in the receiving. Counselors, of all people, know the value of being emotionally intimate, familiarly known and fully present with another human being. Fundamentally, reliance on social media sacrifices quality of interaction for quantity of interaction.
The college-age students I interviewed also described the heightened sense of control they felt over their self-presentation when engaging with others online. They explained their desire to present only their best selves online — their best pictures and their greatest moments — painting the picture of a happy, full and active life. These findings confirm recent research conducted by Catalina Toma and Jeffrey Hancock, who found that technology affords users the ability to select and edit their statements and take unlimited time to compose messages, allowing them to craft optimized versions of themselves online. Facebook, by definition, enables users to highlight treasured personal characteristics in an online profile and publicly display social connections with friends and family in an effort to be affirmed by other Facebook users.
These ideal self-presentations have multiple levels of impact on both the social media poster and the social media viewer. First, the ability to engage in self-promotion online, as well as the ability to maintain many shallow relationships, is a breeding ground for narcissistic traits. Furthermore, we have all suffered from the impostor syndrome, fearing that people would not really like or accept us if they really knew us, and social media can heighten this dynamic by promoting the creation of a reinvented self online. Posters may experience an increase in internal incongruence because they know that their real selves — the selves they actually know and experience — are different from the idealized selves they have presented online. Finally, even though Facebook consumers know that putting your “best face forward” is the rule online, they still look at others’ posts, compare themselves with those idealized self-presentations and begin to believe that others have better lives and a greater sense of well-being than they do.
The experience of anonymity and ‘online muscles’
One final area of conversations with these young adults related to their decreased awareness of others while using social media — or experiencing a sense of deindividuation. According to psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who studies personal responsibility and group behavior, this phenomenon is strongly fostered in situations that provide some level of anonymity. It involves a diminished sense of individuality and, consequently, a reduction in the sense of personal responsibility, leading to behavior that is incongruent with one’s personal standards of conduct. In other words, deindividuation means we are more likely to engage in socially inappropriate or self-serving behaviors when we do not feel that our behaviors are closely associated with our identity.
It may seem odd that the phenomenon of deindividuation would apply to Facebook, given that one’s identity is known on the social media site. However, the young adults I interviewed observed repeatedly that users post things on Facebook that they would never say in real life, including inappropriate self-disclosures, aggressive comments, rude insults and extremist opinions. They revealed that behind the protection of a screen, users grow what one woman called “online muscles.” Although they said that knowing the identity of a Facebook user should make people feel accountable for their words, they acknowledged that the psychological distance created by the technology allows for the phenomenological experience of anonymity.
When students reflected on this phenomenon, they posited that not being able to see the other person allowed them to reduce the interaction to “just words.” As a result, they felt less accountability for how they might affect another person. Furthermore, they theorized that the phenomenological experience of anonymity was related to an altered sense of reality that many users experience while engaging with others on social media. Cognitively, these students were aware that Facebook is a venue for interacting with many people simultaneously, a way to “talk to everyone.” Yet time after time, they described losing track of their audience and feeling as though they were actually talking to no one. They characterized their experience as “talking to the computer, basically,” “talking to self” and “it’s just you and your words … you and the computer screen.”
Social media, a form of mediated communication, creates technological distance, which allows people to treat others in ways they would not consider if they were engaged in embodied interactions. In the process of becoming caught up in themselves, users forget their audience and say things they would not say in real life.
Our adoption of social technology is happening at astronomical speed, and my conversations with college students, although certainly not conclusive, suggest that this is not a benign development. Instead, social technology is a bit like the Trojan horse — seducing us with its beauty and stated mission, but all the while secretly sabotaging our most human qualities.
The ability to make meaningful interpersonal connections is of profound importance to our psychological health. Rather than promoting social connections as Facebook posits, social media technology separates people from the relational and promotes the individualistic and narcissistic. Self-interest ultimately leads to a loss of self and a decreased awareness of others. Eventually, we are unable to see and fully experience the humanity of others, creating the psychological distance that allows us to treat others in inhumane ways. This represents a loss of our most essential human qualities — a loss that we cannot afford.
Jennifer L. Cline is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in Verona, Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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