At some point, we — as a society — are going to reevaluate our fascination with social media. We’re bound to, because the course that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al, have us on is not sustainable.
A new survey, released just this past weekend, found that young adults who spend at least two hours a day on social media are twice as likely to feel socially isolated as their peers who spend less than 30 minutes a day on social media. And the more time you spend on those digital networks, the more likely you are to feel socially isolated.
In other words, social media is supposed to be filling the void in our social lives. Instead, it seems to have the opposite effect.
The researchers who led the study, which was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, concluded that while we humans are inherently social creatures, many of us tend to spend so much time on social media that we don’t have time for real socializing. And, as just about anyone can tell you, the networks like Facebook and SnapChat are no substitute for real interaction with other people.
None of this is news to a lot of you, of course. It hasn’t exactly been a secret that our social skills and interactions have declined as social networks have become more prominent.
It started innocently enough, with MySpace and then Facebook. But social media networks have multiplied at an increasing rate. Today, those two networks only scratch the surface of social media. There’s also Instagram and Twitter; SnapChat and Reddit; Pinterest and Vine; and the list goes on and on. The younger you are, the more likely you are to have even more social media networks to grab your attention. Teens and tweens commonly use Musical.ly and its live-streaming counterpart, Live.ly, among others.
Naysayers have long pointed out the detriments of social media. Chief among them, we’re forgetting how to have real conversations with one another. It’s the digital age’s great irony that apps and networks intended to make us more social (secondary to padding their developers’ pockets, if we’re being honest) are actually causing a break-down in social skills.
But allow me to suggest to you that the single biggest detriment of social media is how quickly we’re becoming rude to one another.
In the early days of the internet, the social niche was filled by message boards and chatrooms. It wasn’t called social media back then, but they were a precursor to today’s social networks. You didn’t use your real name, usually. Instead, you logged in under a moniker. Entire online communities were developed where people knew one another only by assumed names — like JackRabbit341 or Cheezehead. And, boy, were there some vicious people in those circles.
In real-life interactions in the 1990s, few of us would have considered name-calling and flinging insults to be an acceptable form of discourse. Not when you were standing face-to-face with someone, knew their name, and didn’t have a barrier between you. But online, there was a computer screen to hide behind, a keyboard to do the talking, and no one knew anyone else’s name, so just about anything went. And rudeness prevailed.
Fast-forward a few years, to the arrival of MySpace and, later, Facebook. There were other social media networks that predated these, of course, but for all intent and purpose, social media was born when a college kid named Zuckerberg developed a social networking tool that took the internet by storm. Facebook made all of us social. Today, if you have a smartphone, a tablet, or spend time online with your laptop, chances are that you have a Facebook account.
Early on, Facebook was different. Because everyone used their real name, and had their real photo associated with their name, and because most of us weren’t networking with people we didn’t actually know in real life, Facebook was a much politer alternative to the message boards and chat boards that had dominated the internet in the ‘90s. Discourse was cordial. We actually liked one another.
But anyone who has been paying attention will nod their heads in agreement on this: as Facebook has aged and matured, it has become the same vitriolic cesspool for hatefulness and arguing that those early message boards were.
This is where the declination of our social skills seems to show up best. Twenty years ago, we would’ve been unlikely to make a rude comment towards someone online if we actually knew who we were talking to. Today, that’s no longer a barrier for too many of us. That’s why the lines are being blurred between Facebook and the dinosaur holdouts from the message board era, like Topix. And, I think, to some degree, all of us are guilty of it. If someone says something that draws our ire, we’re much more likely now to fire back, whereas a couple of decades ago we probably wouldn’t have, no matter how much they might deserve it.
It would be easy to suggest that society will really be doomed once this progression continues and spills over into real life, where we’re just as likely to pop off something condescending to someone in Walmart as we would’ve been on some message board 20 years ago.
Except that it already has begun to carry over. How many of us know people we won’t speak to, or who won’t speak to us, because of something that was said on a silly social media network? And it affects just about every societal institution that we hold sacred — our marriages, our families, our churches, and the list goes on.
For all their usefulness, social media networks have plenty of drawbacks. And as they actually perform the opposite effect of making us less social instead of more, you have to wonder: how long until we all just become completely fed up with all of them and go back to actual, real, meaningful conversations?
We probably wouldn’t be worse off for it.