Social Media: A Barrier to Actualizing Our Humanity

Annika Bjornson, Editor-in-Chief

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Total control, perfection, and gratification are fabricated prospects that we as a society vainly attempt to reach, but social media has perpetuated our impression that these ideals can be met. As an eighteen-year-old student growing up in the revolution of the Web, I recognize the ways in which social media has improved opportunities for people from all walks of life to connect. I also recognize the ways in which societal pressures and social interactions have been impacted by the online world.

Why do you walk into a waiting room and see everyone on their tablets? Why do your friends get on their phones when you are spending time together? Why do you distract yourself while working out by listening to music? Being on a device allows us to have control over what our attention is on. Essentially, we are hiding from each other because we can distance ourselves in the amount that we want to and then tune back into the real world at will. I noticed that my fellow students often brought up cell phone use as a barrier to human connection during our communication unit in Mr. Peterhans’ psychology of human relating course. Many students shared that friends or family members would often dodge conflict by taking out their phones, which further emphasizes the point that we use technology to avoid the messy part of human relationships.

Duke University sociologist Miller McPherson and colleagues performed a study of social isolation in the U.S. between 1984 and 2005 and found that the mean number of confidants a person had went from 2.94 to 2.08. Based upon the increased integration of mobile devices in our modern everyday lives, one can imagine that number has only dropped more since that time. We create ‘real friends’ to talk to by allowing space for vulnerability. It can be scary to not have control over everything, especially within social settings, but that is how people grow and embrace our real, raw, human experiences.
Our alarmingly prevalent involvement in the digital world has exposed us to a lot of images that create a specific, unattainable standard of excellence. Think about it: the Instagram models, FOMO-inducing Snapchat stories, and addicting advertisements. We relate to ourselves and one another differently because of our skewed vision of reality in our unrealistic expectation of perfection. Dr. Sherry Turkle, a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, emphasized that when digital technology was getting on its feet, people were able to enjoy it for its benefits and then unplug. But one of the differences between technology in its earlier stages and technology now is that we do not know how to fully unplug. Therefore, these messages of perfection continue to plague us with a fear that we are less than.

The ease of mobile devices also makes us crave that immediate gratification and causes us to lose focus of the need to obtain long-term gratification through spending time with ourselves. According to the Common Sense Census from the fall of 2015, half of teenagers say they feel they are addicted to their devices. Web designers know that a “like” or a funny clip will release a little bit of dopamine in our brains that causes us to keep scrolling. Because we do not make time to self-reflect or enjoy complete solitude, we become so self-oriented in our desire to fulfill the need to belong through online interaction. I say this because self-reflection allows space to acknowledge one’s needs that are not being met and to consider how one might go about meeting those, and then there is space to focus on others. When we allow ourselves to reach for our phones any time we get bored, we numb those needs, and our frustration at not having met them comes out in selfish behavior. Then we go online to talk to others, but the illusion of companionship we experience on Twitter is not enough to gratify us with real friendships.

The topic of social media’s impact on the modern person is quite heated at the moment. Study after study shows that there is a link between mobile device use to the skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression. The aforementioned Common Sense Census shows that older teens spend an average of 8:55 hours a day using media. At a school with a curriculum that integrates tablets, I shudder to think of how many hours more that I spend using a device, whether for music, videos, reading online, texting, doing math problems, or writing essays.

This topic is more important than ever for parents, teachers, and students alike to consider. The next time you feel uncomfortable, do not revert to pulling out your phone. When you find that you are comparing yourself to others on social media, stop scrolling. And after a long day, take time to be with yourself in a way that is conducive to your well-being as a self-aware person.

I call upon this generation of people to use technology with wisdom and to live in the real world with the courage to face real challenges.

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