Many years ago I broke my foot. When the hospital sent me home, they provided me with a crutch that I had to use in order to get around. It was the most frustrating experience trying to hobble around everywhere navigating with this tool that was supposed to be helpful but really seemed more like a huge hindrance.
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In many ways, modern technology is like that crutch, provided to us and meant as a helpful tool, but with some negative consequences. As this new extension of ourselves, smartphones and computers have become a social crutch, this thing we can not seem to go anywhere without, but hindering us as we struggle to interact and relate to each other. Many people see social media as helping them be more social but instead, it seems to actually be preventing us from making meaningful connections. There are numerous ways in which people disconnect due to social media and technology use, and it has a dramatic effect on our ability to be social. In this modern world of constant digital connection, we are more disconnected than ever. The proliferation of social media has diminished people’s social skills, impacted the ability to feel empathy, and is causing mental health issues.
Social media can impact our social skills in several ways. One problem is that social media encourages people to form and cherish artificial bonds in place of actual friendships. Sociologist Maryanne Gaitho indicates in her article What Is the Real Impact of Social Media? that the term ‘friend’ as used on social media lacks the intimacy identified with conventional friendships, where people actually know each other, want to talk and have an intimate bond by interacting face to face. In other words, when people do spend time together, they are just staring at their smartphones and missing out on true social moments. This is preventing real connections with one another. People have become less interested in meeting others in person and more fixated on their phones and affects our ability to have a deep and meaningful conversation. As such, we can see how social media is significantly impacting our communication skills. The extensive use of social media platforms can also cause the loss of language. As discussed by Allison Graham in her TEDxTalk, How Social Media Makes Us Unsocial, messaging and texting has become our primary means of communication, and people often use shortened versions of words in order to type and deliver their messages as quickly as possible. Ms. Graham explains, In texting things like OMG, WTF, LOL people are unconsciously losing the nuance of words, and with it the ability to be fully communicative and be interactive in conversation.
Simply put, people need to engage in authentic communication in order to truly connect. According to Susan Tardanico, CEO of the Authentic Leadership Alliance, a leadership and communications consultancy, in her article Is Social Media Sabotaging Real Communication?, Studies show that only 7% of communication is based on the written or verbal word, with a whopping 93% based on nonverbal body language. In other words, it is only when we can hear a tone of voice or look into someone’s eyes that we are really able to know how someone is truly feeling and forge connections. There are many ways that we can correct the decline of social and communication skills, and the impact it has on our relationships. One very helpful way can be through practicing mindfulness. As discussed by authors Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes in the APA Journal of Psychotherapy article entitled What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research, in being more mindful, we are more aware of the world around us and how we interact with others. Basically, being mindful gives us the skill to recognize when we are allowing ourselves to be distracted and not living in the moment. Creating a gratitude journal can also be a good way in developing mindfulness. This helps us recognize moments and people we appreciate, which in turn can inspire us to initiate more meaningful interactions as well.
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’s article Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-being in Daily Life, authors Emmons and McCullough discuss that experiences and expressions of gratitude have been treated as both basic and desirable aspects of human personality and social life…and deeper, more satisfying personal relationships. We can also strive to take time away from our phones and develop hobbies and activities which involve spending time with people and cultivating closer relationships. Finally, and most importantly, turn off your phone at certain times of the day. When you are in a meeting, at the gym, or having dinner, use that time to engage and interact with people. By putting the phone away when at restaurants, you are sending the message that you are there to listen and to be heard, developing deeper bonds with friends and family. You can also create sacred spaces in your home that are device-free, and when you have visitors make these locations a place for conversation instead. Another major negative effect Social Media can have on people is the way it impacts empathy. People tend to disconnect/detach from emotions when they are provided with too much information. In a TedTalk by Jacquelyn Quinones, an expert in technological communication, she discusses the issue of how technology detrimentally impacts empathy in people. She states that a 2011 survey showed that 3 out of 4 college students are 50% less empathetic today than they were 30 years ago, linking this decline of empathy to around 2001, it is correlated with the period of the creation and usage of social media.
With the increase of technology use fueled by the rise of Social Media in our lives, there is a digital information overload resulting in the phenomena of screen disconnect. In other words, people become statistically numb as the overload of images and information freezes their emotions and blocks the ability to feel empathy. Psychology Today author Tim Elmore explains in an article titled How Our Screens Diminish Our Empathy, Screens separate us from real pain. We watch murders and robberies on TV…see criticism take place on Twitter…watch catastrophic fails on Youtube. Somehow, seeing so many tragedies numbs us to the reality of the pain. The screen distances us…our mind doesn’t know the difference between a real experience and an imagined one. It’s like a show. Basically, this lack of empathy divides us by shutting us off from emotions, causing what is referred to as an empathy gap. Social Media drives and perpetuates this empathy gap and the outcome can result in cyberbullying. The study featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Empathy Gaps for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Pain of Social Suffering suggests that people have difficulty appreciating the full severity of social suffering unless they themselves experience it. The findings show that an understanding of this empathy gap, especially in the case of bullying, is crucial because it has implications for how outsiders react to socially distressing events and the degree of punitive measures that are taken in support of victims (Nordgren et al).
Simply put, because empathy is dulled through overstimulation, people are losing the ability to truly empathize with the suffering of others. This is especially prevalent in cyberbullying. Michael Hamm, a researcher from the University of Alberta conducted a study that showed the effects of social media on bullying. It concluded 23 percent of teens report being targeted and 15 percent said they had bullied someone on social media. Teenagers can misuse social media platforms to spread rumors, share videos aimed at destroying reputations, and blackmail others. In other words, the empathy gap has an extreme effect on the increase of cyberbullying and those doing the bullying do not comprehend the damage they are inflicting on someone else’s mental health. Furthermore, outsiders are also lacking the ability to relate to the victims of these instances because of their empathy gap. It is possible to shift our use of social media in order to help everyone become more empathetic through self-awareness. The following are some ways to minimize screen disconnect and combat the empathy gap and cyberbullying. According to Nordgren et al: improved counseling for bullied students or simulating self-induced mild states of social pain to heighten understanding of others’ pain could help fix the gap as a means to correct distorted judgments of social pain…Our perception of social pain matters as much as our understanding of physical pain. Not only do estimates of social pain govern how we empathize with socially traumatic events, but they guide our approach to how well we advocate on a victim’s behalf. One example of this would be involving schools and having young students participate in role-reversal workshops to experience bullying and teach empathy.
Additionally, a way to address the issue of diminishing screen disconnect, is being aware of avoiding or blocking sites that are too intense or traumatic. One should take caution in the viewing too many videos that highlight real violence for fun. We also need to be conscious of how much time we are spending on social media, being aware that it can prevent us from having meaningful connections, and affects our ability to truly connect and feel empathy for others. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote about the high importance of the art of not reading. He spoke on how excessive reading could lead clever minds to become the playground of others’ thoughts. With so much to read, he feared that people would read themselves stupid. How poignant his thoughts are now in this modern age, where we deal with a similar issue due to social media. Instead of a sabbatical from reading books, we need one from screens and reading too much social media, breeding disconnection our own thoughts and feelings and those of others. In the modern era and proliferation of social media, we need to remember to check in with our emotions and be aware of our actions and reactions to what we are viewing. It is within our power to combat the empathy gap and screen disconnect through self-awareness. Probably the most important issue to address regarding the effect social media is its effect on the increase in mental health issues. Researchers have shown that high social media correlates to depression, anxiety, and stress.
In her article Health officials: Social Media Affects Students’ Mental Health, Karenna Meredith interviewed clinical psychologist Stephen Thayer and Utah-based licensed social worker Clair Mellenthin who both agree that social media can affect the mental health of young adults. Thayer said when it comes to social media the poison is in the dosage. When we stay in our private, online, social worlds we miss out on the social crucible of face-to-face interaction that forges emotional resilience and character. Pandering for ‘likes’ on Facebook or Instagram does little more than feed an addiction to validation. Additionally, according to Mellenthin, This perceived validation can manifest itself in a certain number of likes or feedback a person receives on a post, which has a direct correlation to a person’s level of anxiety or depression. In doing so, we are allowing others to attribute value to our self-concept. Social media is also changing our sense of identity as people try to up their self-worth in relation to what others think about us through our posts.
Furthermore, according to social media expert Bailey Parnell, in her Tedx Talk, another detrimental stressor is exposure to what can be called The Highlight-Reel everyone’s best and brightest moments posted on social media. This can cause people to struggle with insecurity because of comparing their behind-the-scenes lives with everyone else’s best moments, leading people to feel their lives are inferior. There is also a third stressor known as FOMO (the fear of missing out). This is a real social anxiety when one feels they may be missing a potential connection, event, or opportunity. The need to engage in social media eventually becomes an addiction, not unlike substance abuse. People get dopamine spikes attention through social currency and start to need and crave it. Then when it falls short of expectations, it leads to higher levels of anxiety, depression. In ways of improving social media’s effect on mental health, the same simple solution can be used; to simply give yourself permission to check and putting the phone down, Mellenthin said.
Another suggestion is to only post things you truly care about and that are important to you; and not things that you are seeking out approval or attention from other people. If you feel you are experiencing these negative symptoms from social media use, you can work to create a better online experience for yourself. One way is to unfollow brands, celebrities, or friends from your timeline that you find are making you feel bad. Another key thing to remember is to model good behavior online just as you would offline. Lastly, be mindful and take breaks from too much internet use. Although social media has had had an effect on people’s social skills, empathy, and mental health, it does not have to continue to be the case. Social media does not have to be detrimental. It can cheer you up, make you laugh, inspire positive social change and actions, and connect people. We just have to be mindful of how much control we give it over our daily lives.
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