Social Media Isolates But Also Binds

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How many of your virtual friends would you actually invite over for lunch? (Photo credit: Meer)

Does social media make us feel more or less connected? How does connecting and communicating in a digital space impact us differently than connecting and communicating in a physical space?

There are mixed results from various studies, but recently more studies have come out finding that we actually feel less connected to each other the more we use social media like Facebook:

Kross found that the more people used Facebook, the less happy they felt—and the more their overall satisfaction declined from the beginning of the study until its end. The data, he argues, shows that Facebook was making them unhappy.Research into the alienating nature of the Internet—and Facebook in particular—supports Kross’s conclusion. In 1998, Robert Kraut, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, found that the more people used the Web, the lonelier and more depressed they felt. After people went online for the first time, their sense of happiness and social connectedness dropped, over one to two years, as a function of how often they used the Internet.Lonelier people weren’t inherently more likely to go online, either; a recent review of some seventy-five studies concluded that “users of Facebook do not differ in most personality traits from nonusers of Facebook.”

But, as with most findings on Facebook, the opposite argument is equally prominent. In 2009, Sebastián Valenzuela and his colleagues came to the opposite conclusion of Kross: that using Facebook makes us happier. They also found that it increases social trust and engagement—and even encourages political participation. Valenzuela’s findings fit neatly with what social psychologists have long known about sociality: as Matthew Lieberman argues in his book “Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect,” social networks are a way to share, and the experience of successful sharing comes with a psychological and physiological rush that is often self-reinforcing. The prevalence of social media has, as a result, fundamentally changed the way we read and watch: we think about how we’ll share something, and whom we’ll share it with, as we consume it. The mere thought of successful sharing activates our reward-processing centers, even before we’ve actually shared a single thing.

Virtual social connection can even provide a buffer against stress and pain: in a 2009 study, Lieberman and his colleagues demonstrated that a painful stimulus hurt less when a woman either held her boyfriend’s hand or looked at his picture; the pain-dulling effects of the picture were, in fact, twice as powerful as physical contact.

more via How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy : The New Yorker.

So what does this all mean? That we are complicated. And so is how we use social media.

“What makes it complicated is that Facebook is for lots of different things—and different people use it for different subsets of those things. Not only that, but they are also changing things, because of people themselves changing,” said Gosling. A 2010 study from Carnegie Mellon found that, when people engaged in direct interaction with others—that is, posting on walls, messaging, or “liking” something—their feelings of bonding and general social capital increased, while their sense of loneliness decreased. But when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.

I have seen forums used to create physical communities (I don’t want to say “real world” because virtual is real, it’s really happening) and create friendships that crossed continents, but I have also heard of and seen virtual bullying that in some very sad cases led to a person’s death. We can be cruel to others by hiding behind that veil of anonymity, or even just by creating a lack of physical presence which also creates a mental separation which makes it easier for us to feel isolated or intentionally isolate others. But we also want to share and connect with others, even if we can’t be physically near them, and share very intimate details with people we may not otherwise have given the time of day, which can be a good or bad thing depending on the context and situation.

How do you use social media? Does it make you feel more connected to your tribe, or do you feel left out or perhaps even more isolated? Do you bridge the gap between your virtual world and physical world, or does the slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” also apply to your social media and physical lives? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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One thought on “Social Media Isolates But Also Binds

  1. Thank you for lining to me here – great article. You should check out my “Facebook RIP” article. It has tips on how to quit it! 🙂

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