Peter Vande Brake explores the dehumanizing effects of social media.

This summer there was a headline in my local paper that caught my eye. In large, bold, capital letters were the words, “FACING FACTS,” and then in bold type below that was the sub-heading, “Survey debunks negative opinion of teens and social media.” I wondered what negative opinion had been “debunked” and how the “debunking” had happened. So I read on.

The article explained that most teenagers (ages 13-17) have positive rather than negative experiences with social media. Social media platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have helped young people “keep in touch with their friends, get to know other students at their school better, or connect with those who share a common interest.” Also “half of teens said they feel social networks helped their friendships . . . Three out of 10 (sic.) teens said social networks made them feel more outgoing.” Other benefits listed in the article were that teens felt more confident, popular, and sympathetic to others as a result of spending time utilizing social media.

Some negative effects were mentioned too such as the “adult-like weariness” that teens can feel from the constant pressure to text or post something new on their Facebook page known as “Facebook fatigue.” Nevertheless, the general consensus of the article was that even though teenagers may be overindulging in social media a bit, it is helping them make friends and it is causing teens to feel better about themselves. Thus, the article concluded that, contrary to popular opinion, social media is basically good for teenagers rather than bad.

More specifically, according to the author, the negative opinion that has been discredited by this study is the “popular perception that using social-media sites is inherently harmful because of the dangers of isolation, bullying from peers, the release of private or personal information, or online predators.” Evidently, she thinks that the possibility of these dangers becoming a reality is so remote (only four percent of respondents reported a harmful effect of social media on their relationships) that we shouldn’t worry about them.

There are several problems with the claim of “debunking” that is being proffered in this article. First, it states that most people think that “using social media sites is inherently harmful.” In other words, the majority of people think that the use of social media sites inevitably results in some kind of harm for teenage users because of the dangers listed above. This opinion is offered without substantiation. However, this seems like an unreasonable claim. It may be that this is not a claim that needs to be “debunked” because it is a claim so extreme most people don’t really hold it.

Second, the author makes the assertion that social media was once thought to be inherently harmful, but now that opinion has been “debunked” by virtue of the fact that most teenagers report having a positive experience with it. However, this is something like saying that automobiles were once thought to be inherently harmful, but that perception has been “debunked” because the vast majority of teenagers do not have fatal accidents in them. This is a false portrayal of the issue. Using social media is not “inherently harmful” to everyone who utilizes it, but the dangers are real and need to be carefully avoided. An automobile is not inherently harmful either; not everyone who climbs into a car will get into an accident. But driving a car is a dangerous undertaking and care must be taken to avoid an accident. Just ask any parent who has recently placed his keys into the hand of a novice driver; the potential for disaster is enough to keep you awake at night even if the probability for a serious accident is relatively miniscule.

Third, this study, which was conducted by Common Sense Media, is based on self-reports from teenagers who are immersed in social media. The study itself states that “those who are immersed in social media may not be best positioned to assess whether it is having an impact on them or not.” It also warns that this kind of research is “useful for providing descriptive statistics and exploring associations between variables, but it cannot demonstrate causality between any of those variables.” So to draw the conclusion from this study that we no longer need to worry about the harmful effects of social media because most teenagers report having a positive experience with it is overreaching the scope of the evidence to say the least. The conclusion of the report states, “None of this means that there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to teens and social media. The concerns are real: about privacy, bullying, hate speech, body image, and oversharing, to name a few.”

So it is perhaps more accurate to say that there are some benefits to using social media, and there are some dangers that, if possible, need to be carefully avoided; however, this is merely stating the obvious. There is also a deeper sense in which social media and technology can have a negative effect on those who use it by chipping away at the kinds of interactions that make us most human. Social media offers the illusion of companionship without friendship, it promotes the de-incarnation of the bond between word and body, and it encourages interaction that is efficient and shallow rather than real and authentic.

Most of what I see on my Facebook page is trivial and superficial. By perusing profiles, I can often find out where my friends from high school live and where they work. Sometimes when I read their posts, I can get some idea of their political stances or religious views. I see pictures of their families, their pets, and their vacations,
but I don’t really know them anymore because I don’t see them face-to-face or talk to them on the phone. I don’t know what their lives have really been like, what they have suffered and what they have celebrated. They post witty sayings on their walls or funny pictures or videos. We share a laugh alone in front of our computer screens and then comment with an “lol” or click on the “like” button to show approval. Sometimes it even seems like we laughed at it together. Someone might post something sentimental that will put a lump in your throat or make your eyes well up, but the real stuff doesn’t get posted very often. Facebook isn’t designed to bear the weight of real life.

Shelly Turkle, the author of Alone Together, has said that one of the problems with social media is that “there’s this sense that you can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. The real demands of friendship, of intimacy, are complicated.” Friending and defriending someone on Facebook is accomplished with the click of a mouse; it is a process that is both sterile and uncomplicated. Real friendship demands time and attention. It is joyful and rich, but can also be painful for a host of different reasons. Real friendship can be as comfortable and warm as your favorite sweatshirt, but it can also be inconvenient and awkward. Social media, by its nature, removes much of what is required for true friendship to exist between two people. Friendship is best accomplished face to face in the real world without a cyber intermediary. Maybe there are some people on your Facebook “friends” list that you would call at four
in the morning in the midst of a personal crisis, but that is probably only because you spend a lot of time with them in real life.

Almost half of the young people (49%) who participated in this survey carried out by Common Sense Media prefer face to face encounters with friends over any form of social media interaction. They seem to realize that there is a distinction between Facebook friends and real friends without too much trouble. They understand that sharing a laugh in person is better and more fun that posting something witty online that you hope your friends will laugh at with you.

All forms of social media de-incarnate language. The nature of social media is to take language out of context by separating the words from the one who spoke or thought them. This is not a new problem; it is as old as written language, but technology has allowed written messages to occur instantly and often. When you write a letter by hand, you have more time to think about what you are going to say because it takes longer to do. If you say something that is difficult or confrontational or controversial in the letter, you also can take time to decide whether or not you should send the letter. If you send the letter you know that it is going to take some time for the person to receive the letter, and you can call and apologize before the letter gets to its intended destination if you  need to. However, when you can send a message with the click of a button in the heat of the moment without fully considering what you are saying, you can easily say things that you wish you had not said. For instance, twenty-five percent of teens admitted that they had said something bad about someone online or while texting that they would not have said in person.

This kind of separation of the word from the flesh that is inherent in social media can also encourage a sense of boldness or perhaps even wantonness that one would not otherwise have in a face-to-face encounter. Thirty-one percent of the teens surveyed revealed that they had flirted online with someone that they would not have approached in person. When you are using social media it is far too easy to have one face online and another in person.

Steve Baarendse has rightly pointed out that “so much of human communication lies in the incarnational bond between word and body. Think about the volumes conveyed by a piercing glance, an eye moistened with tears, a tender hand on the shoulder.” The human incarnation of language brings a great deal of context and meaning to language. The teens surveyed said that the top reason why face-to-face communication is preferred is because it is more fun, but second on the list was because you “can understand what people mean better.” Being there really does make a difference. As Baarendse says, “Pointed sarcasm or a tough word of confrontation can be tempered in person—the surgeon’s scalpel that cuts in order to heal—but these words are often blunt meat cleavers on Facebook.”

Perhaps the most disconcerting finding in the Common Sense Media survey is that one third of thirteen to seventeen year olds would rather text than talk to someone face to face. The basic reason they gave for this is that it is more efficient. Thirty percent of those who preferred texting said that it is the quickest and twenty- three percent said that it is the easiest. Sixteen percent said that it gave them more time to respond. Sherry Turkle also comments on this saying that texting “is less risky, (young people feel that they) can just get the information out there. (They) don’t have to get involved.” Texting someone can circumvent awkwardness that cannot be avoided in person. Cultivating friendships is demanding; it takes lots of negotiating. People use technology to skip and cut corners and to not have to do some of these very hard things. Turkle proposes that “this generation is given the option to not do some of the hardest things in adolescence.” She worries that they “are growing up without some basic skills in many cases.”

Texting rather than talking allows friendships to be more efficient, but it also means that friendships can become more mechanical and shallow, especially if texting is the primary vehicle for communication between friends. In order to have relationships that are real and authentic, face-to-face communication is necessary. Technology encourages face-to-screen communication. Next time you are in an airport take notice of how many people are absorbed in their laptops, tablets, or smartphones. People rarely even people-watch anymore; they are too riveted to their screens to even notice what is going on around them.

Using social media is not inherently harmful, but reasonable precautions are always advisable and even necessary to avoid the pitfalls of bullying, isolation, hate-speech, oversharing, and predators. The more subtle dangers that we need to be aware of are how it affects
our communication and our relationships. Among these hazards are the illusion of companionship without real friendship, the de-incarnation of the bond between word and body, and the temptation to move toward interactions that are efficient and shallow rather than real and authentic.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn