Does Social Media Keep Us From Making Authentic Connections?

Authentic ConnectionsThe next time you are at a restaurant, glance around the room and see how many people are actively engaging in conversation as they share a meal together. What percentage have their heads down with the light of their cellphone reflecting off their face as they text, tweet or update their Facebook page?

Social media has become our constant companion. “There has been a shift in the way we communicate,” said Paul Booth, PhD, assistant professor of media and cinema studies at DePaul University. “Rather than face-to-face interaction, we’re tending to prefer mediated communication.” College roommates email or text one another across a silent room as they intermittently text their other friends and family members across campus or across the nation.

Recent studies have shown that people are becoming increasingly interactive with others, but the style of communication has changed. While we used to meet our friend at the local coffee shop, in the age of social media, we simply text back and forth in the comfort of our own home. A decade ago we would call our husband at the end of the day to see what he wanted to do for dinner and catch up on one another’s day while we were on the phone. Today, it is much easier to text “What do you want to do for dinner?” and for him to respond, “how about pizza?” Two minutes later, the conversation ends with, “Deal! I’ve ordered it and will pick it up on my way home.” In our increasingly fast-paced lives, this interchange is certainly convenient and practical. Booth agrees and notes, the quantity of our communications has increased, but “we may not be building relationships as strongly.”


Building broad connections

Social media enables us to connect with people from seemingly endless walks of life. We can connect with the CEO of Facebook, discuss our favorite Christian music band with others who can’t get enough, or get recipes from other truffle lovers for Friday night’s dinner.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu studied how people built social capital or influence within a system. One way this was done was through developing large networks of loosely organized and not necessarily intimate connections. Broad networks have been shown to help people attain positions of leadership. Large networks provide access to new ideas and resources. This can be valuable for those looking to progress in their career.

At the same time, research shows that our connections with others are generally not strengthened through social media like they are by face-to-face interactions. As a result, our relationships that primarily rely on interaction through social media are generally not deepened. They tend to remain at status quo.


Is digital intimacy true intimacy?

Research on happiness and health point to the importance of social support systems in promoting physical and psychological flourishing. These systems include the group of people in our life that we know we can count on, that encourage us when we are down and who care about us deeply.

It is easy to confuse digital intimacy for true intimacy. We mistakenly believe that a connection signifies a relationship – a social commitment of trust and mutual support. As we check our friend requests or Messenger messages and glance across our Facebook updates, opportunities to engage in interactions that make up our true “social support system” await. God invites us to look up and talk about the difficulties and joys of the day with our husband, follow up with our son about the challenge he is having with a friend or call our mom.

We can become so seduced by the ease of connecting with others online that we begin to think that these relationships are more intense, more committed and more complete than they really are. We run the risk of alienating the people who populate our daily lives in pursuit of connection with the masses online.


Loss of face-to-face contact

Additionally, while social media allows us to reach out and connect with the multitudes, those with whom we interact tend to be people who share the same interests and views. As a result, we are less likely to have a face-to-face friendly debate with a friend of a friend over coffee or engage in deep dialogue about an issue we’re going through at home. Interactions are, to a certain degree, limited to what we can share in 140 characters or less.

Additionally, it is much easier to respond with incivility and disrespect when you are typing the words onto a screen rather than speaking the words to a fellow human and seeing their nonverbal response or having to listen their feedback. Similarly, while cyberbullying often has many of the same precursors and emotional and behavioral consequences as face-to-face bullying, social media allows for more communication, more contact and it is much more public. To make matters worse, those being bullied can’t escape the bullying simply by leaving the school at the end of the day or staying away from a particular neighborhood child. Cyberbullying is persistent and often reaches a far-wider audience, thereby intensifying the impact.


Finding balance

Most of us engage in social media.  Here are some tips to manage it well:

  1. Limit the time you spend on social networks. Recognize the value of social media in building broad connections, and set aside time each day to connect with others and build your network.
  2. Monitor your own emotions and reactions. If you notice that you’re getting angry, frustrated, or hurt, take a break from your electronic media and reflect on why you are responding this way and what the best way to respond might be. Recognize that what you post on social media is or can be made public. This is a good time to connect with someone face-to-face or take a walk.
  3. Maintain a healthy balance between your electronic communications and face-to-face communications with those who are closest to you. In addition to your social network, make sure to cultivate and nourish relationships with those you see every day.


Terry Morrow, Ph.D. is the president of Morrow and Associates Partnership for Leadership and Transformation. She is an assistant dean and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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