Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?

Is the Internet Making Us Lonely?

There’s a great Toyota Venza commercial that I believe truly captures the essence of how social media is affecting our daily interactions. It starts with a young woman sitting at home in front of the computer; she starts talking about an article that she read online about older people becoming increasingly anti-social. After reading the article, she began to aggressively encourage her parents to become active on Facebook. While she’s talking, the commercial flashes between shots of her sitting behind a computer screen and shots of her parents laughing together and mountain biking with friends. She proceeds to describe herself as “living” because she has 687 Facebook friends, while her parents are “so sad” for having only 19. The commercial concludes with two shots, one of the parents reloading their Toyota with their bikes after a seemingly great day of fun and one of the daughter reverting back to browsing the Internet alone.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpeoRIvnxfk

The Socialization Chasm

The juxtaposition of this young woman sitting at home behind a computer screen and describing herself as “living,” while in the same sentence describing her middle-aged parents – who are engaged in an outdoor activity with friends – as “so sad,” depicts the growing socialization chasm between the younger and older generations. The former seem content, even happy in many cases, to replace human interaction with online socialization; older generations appear to place a greater emphasis on traditional forms of socialization, such as spending time with friends and family.

The idea that we can describe interacting online as “social” is somewhat at odds with the isolating effect that it appears to be having on the younger generations. In one of my earlier blog posts, “A Brief Introduction to the ‘Social’ in Social Media,” I explain that the “social” qualifier refers to the interactive communication that takes place over the Internet. But what happens when online socialization becomes the primary form of socialization?

Are We Really Connected?

The advent of social networks and all forms of social media have us more tightly networked than ever before. Yet, I get the sense that we are becoming less and less connected to one another both physically and emotionally. I actually believe that we’re getting lonelier.

In 2005, researchers at the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS) found that of those who use the internet spend 70 minutes less interacting with family, 25 minutes less sleeping, and 30 minutes less watching television on a daily basis. If my Internet habits are at all indicative of most peoples’, these numbers have certainly gone up over the past several years.

Remember what it was like to walk up to someone and strike up a conversation?  Or call a love interest and ask him/her out on a date? It’s very possible that you don’t remember; an alarmingly high number of people have come to use electronic communication – and mobile devices in general – as a crutch for avoiding conversation. How many times have you frantically pulled out your phone while silently chanting, “Please don’t talk to me.  Please don’t talk me,” in the hopes of avoiding someone? I certainly have.

The overwhelming majority of single people that I know are dating online. When I was younger, my girlfriends would call to ask my advice on what to wear on a date. Now when they call (or email), it’s to ask my advice on what to include in their dating profiles. For the record, I believe that online dating can be a great tool and resource for meeting people. I only use this example to highlight the paradigm shift that has taken place over the past decade. That is, the unfortunate belief that typing is just as effective, and thus a suitable replacement, for conversation. There’s no electronic stand-in for the nuances of tone of voice and body language; there’s no comparison between the conversation depth of an in-person meeting and a text.

Online socialization is not a replacement for offline human interaction. Yes, the Internet is an extremely valuable tool and resource that can, arguably, enhance our offline communication. But in no way, shape, or form is typing, texting, sexting, blogging, vlogging, IMing, or any other electronic communication, a suitable substitute for good ol’-fashioned conversation.