The sky is filled with clouds as I wait for the bus in the International District on a normal Tuesday afternoon. I usually avoid interacting with strangers near downtown Seattle, but nothing about this particular young woman seems precarious as she approaches me and starts a conversation.
We chat for roughly three minutes, exchanging remarks about our jobs and plans for the future. As her bus pulls up, my new friend has one last question.
“So...do you have Facebook or something?”
I’m stunned. It takes some serious guts to walk up to a stranger and talk to them, but was our three-minute discussion enough to create a desire for each of us to be informed about the other’s day-to-day personal life? Sure wasn’t for me. At the moment I am more willing to give this random person my number than become “friends” with her. If we had exchanged digits, it likely would have caused us to get together in person again and actually develop a friendship as opposed to our profiles interacting with each other online.
I hop on my bus a few minutes later only to find dozens of people with their heads glued to some sort of screen in front of them. I casually glance around after I take a seat. One teenager is scrolling through her Instagram feed and constantly tapping the screen to “like” just about every photo on the page, another is staring at the ceiling as he mulls over the choice of words in his upcoming tweet, and the man to my left is writing “Happy birthday honey!” on someone’s Facebook wall to accompany the split-screen picture he posted.
Here lies an example of the overwhelming effect that social media has on humans today. And according to several recent studies, the negative impacts outweigh the positives. While sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow people to connect with each other conveniently, overuse of them can damage our most significant relationships and put a damper on our ability to communicate face-to-face.
In her experiment “Mom Just Facebooked Me and Dad Knows How to Text,” Courtney Turnbull of Elon University in North Carolina discovered that online interaction is insufficient for social development, which it’s being leaned on ever more heavily to do. She tested the influence that computer-mediated communication has on the interpersonal communication of those in the Baby Boom Generation and Generation Y, and Turnbull’s study revealed that meaningful interactions were lacking amongst the latter group of people.
“Generation Y members have decreased their quality of interpersonal relationships, making things quick and to the point, losing out on communication depth, which leads to ambiguities and possibly interpersonal conflict due to misunderstandings,” Turnbull’s study reads. “By using short, ambiguous messages Generation Y is missing out on quality conversation.”
Our modern smartphones provide us with dozens of ways to interact with each other, but in reality they are making us less social. When I saw NBA stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play in different games at Seattle Pacific University this summer, I witnessed fans desperately trying to record the events on their phones instead of watching them. According to research by social networking site Badoo, 24 percent of people have missed out on enjoying special moments because they were too busy trying to document their experiences for online sharing. Why? It seems people care more about their appearance on the internet than their personal satisfaction.
In terms of relationships, social media has transformed the desire of many humans from quality into quantity. We spend so much time focusing on our own image and hundreds of trivial friendships online that our most meaningful ones are undermined. The more a person uses a site like Facebook, the weaker their relationships are likely to become.
“Increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self, regardless of the type of target sharing the photographs, is related to a decrease in intimacy,” said David Houghton, one of four British professors to finalize the report of the study “Tagger’s Delight?”. “People, other than very close friends and relatives, don’t seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves. Those who frequently post photographs on Facebook risk damaging real-life relationships.”
Even if you have a healthy relationship with a close friend with whom you interact online every single day, the friendship can’t reach its full potential unless communication takes place in person. Typed words are simply not capable of expressing the same message as face-to-face dialogue. Psychologist and UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian concluded through research that 93 percent of the meaning and effectiveness of communication is based on nonverbal cues. Eye contact, tone of voice, and bodily movements are just a few of the elements that are eliminated when social media comes into play.
“If you have something complex or difficult to discuss with someone, face-to-face is usually best,” said Karen Rathe, professor in the Department of Communication at the UW. “Plenty of meaning can get lost without body language. For important relationships, there’s no substitute for face-to-face.”
With many important facets of communication absent online, there’s a greater chance for a user to be dishonest or content to be misinterpreted. Heck, I’m usually not even laughing when I type “Haha” or “lol”. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, for one, frequently gets into arguments on Twitter with other NFL players as well as strangers. Would a 49ers fan bash Sherman if the 6-foot-3 defensive back was standing right in front of him or her? The fan may not even mean anything he or she is saying online, but it’s impossible to fully understand when the words are typed rather than spoken. Yet almost 40 percent of Americans spend more time socializing online than face-to-face, per the recent study by Badoo.
Social media has turned into an outlet that allows people to be aware of everything about everyone at all times, so it removes the need to catch up with friends in person because we already know what’s been happening in their lives. I can’t remember the last time I got a call from a friend with some big news. And how many times have you heard the phrase, “Oh yeah, I saw it on Facebook”? Believe it or not, a lesser amount of knowledge regarding each other’s lives would result in better in-person conversations, and consequently, improved relationships.
It just kills me when people pay more attention to an electronic device than the other humans around them. When you grow old, are you going to miss your iPad or your family? Will you look back on your life and wish you had spent more time looking at your News Feed and reading celebrities’ tweets? If a person spends an hour checking their accounts each day starting at age 15, they will have spent one whole year of their life on social media before they turn 40. Talking to someone’s face and reading a book are much more valuable actions than using “Face-book”. The difference between reading a book on the bus and reading tweets on the bus: One enhances our ability to communicate in person and the other diminishes it.
Neuroscientists have said that social media will lead to young people having shorter attention spans, an increased amount of narcissism, and a lack of capability to focus away from screens. And although its invasion has spread beyond young people, children ought to be the main concern with regards to its negative effects. They are the future leaders of our society.
“Certainly among my students they have a deep psychological attachment to their phones,” said David Domke, chair for the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. “Being attached to the phone impacts their ability to pay attention in class, to talk to others, to concentrate on abstract ideas for any decent length of time, and to have long conversations.
My hope is that one day, instead of sitting inside and staring at screens, children in our country will go back to their old ways of knocking on each other’s doors, asking if their neighbor wants to come outside and play capture the flag. But according to Domke, the storm of social media is here to stay.
“We will never go back to a time when things are more private than public,” Domke said. “Today, people are willing and wanting to share their lives in public ways that are completely counter to what people in the past wanted. Life today is a public phenomenon.”
First it was Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone that decreased the overall amount of face-to-face communication. Now it’s Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook and Jack Dorsey with Twitter.
These people are geniuses, and I can’t bear to watch the impact their creations are having on us.
Justin Lester is a journalism major going into his senior year at the University of Washington and is a summer intern at Seattle Weekly. You can find him on, ahem, Twitter at Twitter.com/justindlester.