Science of Social Media/Internet

social media

From the human voice to the telegraph to the telephone to however it is kids communicate these days… We’re going to say interpretive Fortnight dancing?.. Human interaction has been part of the human experience since our caveman ancestors learned to throw rocks at our other caveman ancestors to get them to stop painting on the walls. Communication has evolved as an essential trait of what makes us human, but what happens when we no longer have a need for face-to-face communication? What happens when we all have magic boxes in our pockets that allow us to not only access unlimited amounts of information, but instantaneous communication with everyone we know, have ever known, and even possibly our zombie ancestors? The answers are surprising, and not all doom gloom. After all, humans are adaptable, and as our technology evolves so do we.

Hello… Hello? Are you Still There?
Humanity is a social species and we have evolved to need social interaction. That’s why solitary confinement is now classified as torture by the UN. Face-to-face communication does not strictly refer to verbal communication. Evolution has taught us how to pick up on a lot of conscious and unconscious clues about the people we are sitting across a table from, such as body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and even things like speech inflection, length of pauses, formal/informal word usage, and whether or not they use copious amounts of 80’s movie quotes. All of this adds to the nuance of human communication, but on the Internet almost none of those things are possible. Communicating in that way becomes a whole new skill set that needs to be learned. CAPS MEAN YELLING. “Lol” means that you are joking/being sarcastic/enjoyed what someone else just said/are out of things to talk about, and the eggplant emoji means that you are being invited for an eggplant parm dinner, right?… lol

“Unsynchronized” communication is what we do online. We call it that because we do not see the other person’s face and we cannot read their body language or even hear the inflection in their voice. The rules are less instinctive, which is why when you are having a texting/typing conversation with your friend you may notice that you two sometimes overlap with what you are saying, or go off on different conversational tangents. There is no silence in online communication to indicate when someone is done speaking or has finished a thought, which is also why it has become possible to just end conversations without making any closing remarks. Some people get away with just rudely putting down their phones and walking away, mid-conversation. Similarly, we are not great at non-verbally expressing our emotions. We can use things like emojis to get our moods across, but those are easy to fake. It is easier to hide who we are, or what we are thinking, over the Internet. We have time to compose and re-write messages. There is no body language to give us away, which means we are literally simulating a virtual version of ourselves for our friends.

You see, face-to-face communication is considered a “synchronized” form of communication. It is a relatable back and forth for which we instinctively understand the rules. One person talks, the other remains silent, nods, and then reciprocates with words once we are signaled to do so, either by appropriate silence or other non-verbal clues. We have also evolved to empathize with each other in face-to-face communication. We recognize ourselves in the people we talk with, if the person we talk to is sad, we feel a little sad. If the other person is scared or happy or even aroused, we feel that too. This was how humans formed tribes and civilizations throughout the millennia of our evolution. Yet, it can also be exhausting, according to psychologists. All of those small body shifts and ticks we pick up in others can be mentally exhausting. By talking face-to-face we enter into a state of heightened social awareness. -As introverts, we completely get that- It takes more energy to pay attention, interpret, and even empathize with our partner’s speech… at least when compared to exchanging “lols” over the Internet. So, more and more people are choosing to do it less and less, especially the younger generations.

The UnSynchronized Generation
There are three things teenagers are known for these days: Using social media, being ungrateful to their parents, and entering into karate tournaments to beat the bullies of rival dojos… but mostly we’re here to focus on the social media-stuff. According to research conducted by Pew Research Center, back in 2015 -which in the age of teenagers and technology is arguably equal to half-a-century ago- 76% of teens use social media. More than three-quarters of teens say that they do not feel worse about their own lives based on what others post to social media, while 21% of teens say they do. Two-thirds of teens have used social media to make new friends, and 62% of teens give their usernames out to others as a way to keep in contact with new friends they meet. 94% of teens say they use social media to spend time with friends, and 30% of those say they do so every day. When asked to rank forms of communication 66% of teens put social media platforms at the top, even above texting and crane kicks to the face. Now what does all of this mean?

Simply put, the ways in which the next generation is communicating is changing, and drastically fast. Now, that’s not necessary a bad thing. According to a variety of psychologists, social media has a lot of benefits. Mentally, teenagers who use social media tend to have a better sense of belonging, are more trusting, less lonely, and generally happier than they would otherwise be. Social media also allows young people to more easily find role models and it makes them more willing to spread their happiness to those who may or may not be feeling in the best mood. Even physically it can be a benefit. It can give people encouragement for working out and -possibly thanks to peer pressure and selfies- it increases our quality of health and level of self-care. Social media also creates relationships, by connecting people who would not have otherwise found one another, and it decreases feelings of isolation. 83% of teens say that using it makes them feel more connected with their friends’ lives and 70% say it helps them connect emotionally with their peers. 68% of teens who use social media also say that they have received help from online friends during “tough” times. Of course, all of these things can also be a double edged sword.

Use of social media can also negatively affect us, especially young minds which are still in stages of cognitive and social development. It can increase feelings of inadequacy as teens more frequently compare themselves to the polished and virtual lives that they observe on the internet. 53% of teens have registered feelings of “missing out” as they have witnessed friends posting pictures of event or parties they were not invited to, and this can lead to increased feelings of depression and anxiety. On the physical side, extended use of the Internet increases inactivity and obesity, especially in young adults and it can result in a decreased ability to be personally interactive. That means that some young adults, especially children, may not acutely develop those non-verbal and synchronized communication skills we talked about earlier. All of this has led to an increase in “social anhedonia,” which is a desire for decreased social activity, and spending time with old Japanese maintenance men.

Disrupting the Friendarchy
Now, you may be wondering, “how can social media increase physical activity, but also increase obesity, or bring teens a feeling of closeness, but also leave them feeling depressed,” and the simple fact is that social media is still a relatively new phenomena, scientifically speaking. A lot of these feelings and problems are exacerbated or mitigated by a lot of external factors in a teen’s life, and there is no monolithic consensus on the rights or the wrongs of how the Internet is changing our brains and society… if you don’t count the article that Facebook released on the subject. Most of what is said in the article can be summed up in the fact that it all comes down to how we use social media. Are you passively consuming it, or actively taking a part? Now that could be just their way to get you to post more personal information that they can sell off to companies, but there is some sense to it. If you are actively engaging with friends online than you are more likely to feel like a part of the community. If you sit back and just watch what other people are doing than you will be more likely to be jealous or depressed.

Maybe that is why if Karate Kid were made today those Cobra Kai bullies would have been too busy playing video games to beat up Daniel. If anything they would have just sent him a few mean messages on his Instagram account -@RalphTheMaccioManSavage- and been done with it… but that is kind of how our new digital ages goes. The Internet is disrupting all our old tried and true methods of communicating and jock-to-nerd social hierarchies. Human beings are able to juggle about 150 friends, acquaintances, and other social relationships, even negative ones. This is called Dubar’s Number. Among this web of co-workers, friends, and that guy you always nod to on your way to get a soda from the vending machine, you have an expanding circle of relationships.

The people on the outer-fringes are the people you know by face and maybe have one or two interactions with, on occasion. Those people are more numerous, but as your social circles get smaller they include people you know better, such as your friends, your families, your close friends, etc. As you collapse down to the smallest layer, you are typically left with about 2-3 truly important people, best friends… or besties as those crazy Ralph Maccio loving kids would say today. This was typically how social circles have existed since the dawn of time, but social media is disrupting that. You probably have more than 150 Facebook friends, but how much do you know about all of them? If its more than just a face and a name, your may have already expanded that outer-social-circle.

Similarly, staying in such close contact with people you may not have otherwise known has allowed you have simulated-friendships with people who may not feel the same way about you. You may know everything about Mary-from-down-the-street’s life: where she went on vacation, who her dog is dating, what oddly arranged vegetables she had for dinner last night, but does that make you friends? You can now form bonds with acquaintances that you never meet face-to-face. Our social hierarchies are getting jumbled, and full disclosure, we don’t know if that is good or bad. The Internet and social media are shaping our society, just look at teenagers, or the way our President acts, or the way we shop or drive or do almost anything anymore.

When we were kids, we would all go over Todd’s house after school, because he had the Nintendo, and play Goldeneye together. These days kids leave school, retreat to their separate homes, and then play Fortnight together on their own machines, or talk together on Snapchat instead of face-to-face. Is that worse? Maybe not? Is it 100% positive? Probably not? Has this article turned into one long Karate Kid joke? Possibly? Only time will truly tell if this next generation of teens will grow up to be compassionate and connected human beings… or just regular human beings.

The truth is that we are more confused than ever, and this topic is too big for just one post. There are no easy answers. The Internet is as complex as the people the who use it, and like everything created by humans there are good aspects and bad. Hate groups, depression, and anxiety -especially among young adults- is on the rise because of the Internet, but so is tolerance, diversity, and hits on our Elisabeth Shue fan site. People are more likely to find like-minded individuals and communities where they can get support, but they are also more likely to close themselves off to outside opinions and lock themselves in their little bubble. All-in-all, 78% of teens report that they do not feel worse about their lives because of social media, but that means 22% do.

The one thing that is clear, studieshave found that taking a break from social media can improve your psychological well-being. Maybe that is something we should all consider… lol?


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