Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?
I was having dinner with a group of five friends recently, and I couldn’t help but notice that during any given time, at least three of us were on our phones. It was as if we were more interested in checking our emails than we were in listening to each other. Were our phones so important that we couldn’t commit to one hour of uninterrupted quality time with good friends?
Whether we’re in a work meeting or out for a pleasant stroll in the park, for some reason we seem to keep our heads buried in our mobile devices. This makes me question whether or not our society – particularly the younger generation – has become so obsessed with, and accustomed to, communicating via social media that our personal relationships are at risk of deteriorating.
Note: Let me make it clear that when I refer to “personal relationships,” I don’t mean your Facebook friends. I’m thinking more along the lines of your family, close friends, or anyone that you’ve established a meaningful (in-person!) connection with at one time or another throughout your life. These are connections that you genuinely value.
For Better or Worse: Communicating in the 21st Century
Social media has forever changed how we communicate with one another. In my blog post “A Brief Introduction to the ‘Social’ in Social Media,” I discuss how communication in the 21st century is definitively much more efficient and convenient than ever before. Think about it: in a matter of seconds you can share a message with any number of people via text, email, instant messenger, Twitter, or Facebook. You can even share your message with the entire world via a blog, YouTube video, or basic website. This is certainly very powerful. But I’m not so certain that it’s meaningful.
To me, “meaningful” communication actually deepens or strengthens our relationships. Sure, we can write a heartfelt email or send a loving text that can be just as meaningful as a face-to-face conversation. But how often do we use social media to actually do that?
Sending out a quick email, posting status updates to Facebook, tweeting – these are certainly fun and engaging activities for staying relevant and informed. But generally speaking, I wouldn’t describe this type of communication as deepening my relationships. Arguably, it could be described as superficial and cheapened communication.
Living in the Present (Offline)
Another aspect of online communication is how it affects our offline presence. I would argue that one of the biggest threats to our personal relationships is our constant need to be connected. We can’t seem to go anywhere without our phones, iPads, or Kindles. And all of this is fine when we’re alone, but when we’re with our friends or loved ones this can become very problematic.
Have you ever been sitting across from someone that is constantly checking his or her phone? I have. And I’ve even been the offender on many occasions. Not only can it be rude, but it can also send the message that your email is more important than the person across from you. And if that’s the case, why are you there in the first place?!?!
What this really comes down to is living in the moment. You know the cliche, “There’s no time like the present”? Well, it’s kind of true. When you’re spending time with people you value and actually want to connect with meaningfully, then the current time is probably the best time to do it. It’s not in an email or a text message after you’ve said your goodbyes; it’s in that very moment when you’ve got them right in front of you. You can check Facebook or email later, but you can never get that moment back.
Finding a Balance
I will be the first to admit that I love my mobile devices! They’re useful, convenient, fun and a constant source of entertainment. And frankly, they can be a great escape from undesirable situations (like being stuck on a plane with screaming children or taking a five-hour road trip with your weird and slightly senile Aunt Mildred or seated on the subway next to that awkwardly smiling tattooed man who wont stop staring at you and looks as if he was just released from Rikers).
But just like everything else, there’s a time and place for your mobile device(s).
There was a time when I used to check my phone like a crack addict desperately in need of my next fix. And actually, for a very long time I was unaware of my constant need to resort to reaching for my phone. If I was bored, I would reach for my phone. If I was uncomfortable, I would reach for my phone. If I was slightly curious as to whether or not someone – or anyone – had emailed me in the last five minutes, I would reach for my phone. It was as if reaching for my phone was an involuntary reflex!
I can imagine that version of me standing up and saying “My name is Kristi Marc and I’m a socialmediaholic.” Luckily, I didn’t have to seek professional help, but I did have to figure out a way to adjust and find a balance between my online communication and my offline communication.
In my personal experience, setting a few ground rules was very helpful in achieving that balance. One rule is that when I’m with friends, I try to keep my phone out of my sight. (Try being the operative word.) And when I absolutely have to resort to reaching for my phone, I preface it with “excuse me for one second” (or in the case of my in-laws, I politely excuse myself, dart to the nearest restroom, and huddle in the toilet stall checking my phone like a complete psychopath). It’s not a perfect system, but I am getting much better. More importantly, I find that I’m spending more of my time living in the present moment and building deeper connections with those I care about.