With the spread of mobile technology, it's become much easier for more people to maintain constant contact with their social networks online. And a lot of people are taking advantage of that opportunity. One indication: A recent Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. found that 71% use Facebook at least occasionally, and 45% of Facebook users check the site several times a day. That sounds like people are becoming more sociable.
But some people think the opposite is happening. The problem, they say, is that we spend so much time maintaining superficial connections online that we aren't dedicating enough time or effort to cultivating deeper real-life relationships. Too much chatter, too little real conversation.
Others counter that online social networks supplement face-to-face sociability, they don't replace it. These people argue that we can expand our social horizons online, deepening our connections to the world around us, and at the same time take advantage of technology to make our closest relationships even closer.
Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says technology is distracting us from our real-world relationships. Keith N. Hampton, who holds the Professorship in Communication and Public Policy at Rutgers University's School of Communication and Information, argues that technology is enriching those relationships and the rest of our social lives.
So that I won't be branded a Luddite, I will start by saying that I have embraced technology in my life and in my 40 years of teaching. I talk to parents about responsible technology use and educators about enhancing its classroom efficacy. As a research psychologist, I have studied the impact of technology for 30 years among 50,000 children, teens and adults in the U.S. and 24 other countries.
In that time, three major game-changers have entered our world: portable computers, social communication and smart phones. The total effect has been to allow us to connect more with the people in our virtual world-but communicate less with those who are in our real world.
Our real and virtual worlds certainly overlap, as many of our virtual friends are also our real friends. But the time and effort we put into our virtual worlds limit the time to connect and especially to communicate on a deeper level in our real world. With Smartphone in hand, we face a constant barrage of alerts, notifications, vibrations and beeps warning us that something seemingly important has happened and we must pay attention. We tap out brief missives and believe that we are being sociable, but as psychologist Sherry Turkle has so aptly said, we are only getting "sips" of connection, not real communication.
Worse, we don't even need a beep or vibration to distract us anymore. In one study of more than 1,100 teens and adults, my fellow researchers and I found that the vast majority of Smartphone users under 35 checked in with their electronic devices many times a day and mostly without receiving an external alert. Anxiety drives this behavior. As evidenced by a rash of phantom pocket vibrations, our constant need to check comes from anxiety about needing to know what is happening in our virtual worlds.
In one study, we monitored anxiety levels of Smartphone users when we wouldn't let them use their phones, and found that the heavy Smartphone users showed increased anxiety after only 10 minutes and that anxiety continued to increase across the hour-long study. Moderate users showed some anxiety, while light users showed none.
If we are constantly checking in with our virtual worlds, this leaves little time for our real-world relationships. A second issue is the difference between connecting and communicating. While we may have hundreds of Facebook friends-people we never would have met otherwise, with whom we can share many new things-do they really provide the kind of human interaction that is so essential to our emotional health?
Psychologists define social capital, or the benefit we derive from social interactions, in two ways: bonding and the more superficial bridging. Research shows that virtual-world friends provide mostly bridging social capital, while real-world friends provide bonding social capital.
For instance, in one study we found that while empathy can be dispensed in the virtual world, it is only one-sixth as effective in making the recipient feel socially supported compared with empathy proffered in the real world. A hug feels six times more supportive than an emoji.
We need to examine our technology use to ensure that it isn't getting in the way of our being sociable and getting the emotional support we need from the people who are closest to us. We need to put our phones away in social settings and consider making phone calls when we want to contact people instead of a series of brief texts. We need to learn to check in less often and seek out face-to-face contact more often.
The author is a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. www.wsj.com
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