Side Effects of Social Media

In his thoughtful and perceptive article, We’re All Connected: Too bad more is not necessarily the same as better, Scott Doyon questions whether our ubiquitous “social media” strengthen our connections to one another.

While social media offer innumerable pleasures and benefits, there are side effects that we prefer to deny. We do so at our peril.

As McLuhan famously observed in The Medium is the Message, technology amputates the faculty it extends. We are experiencing today one life-threatening example of this. The car was designed to extend the distance an individual can travel beyond the 15 miles per day possible on foot. Now, many of us can – and do – travel 100 miles per day to and from work. This dependency on the car is a major contributing factor in the obesity epidemic. For an obese person, walking just one mile is difficult if not impossible. Our legs are being “amputated” by the car, and our lives are shortened by diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses brought on by obesity.

Similarly, social media extends the number of people we can interact with, and the number of people we can call “friends”. Young people have grown up with this new technology, and are increasingly dependent on social media because their built environment makes it impossible to participate in face-to-face social interaction. Are their social interaction skills being “amputated” in the process? There are disturbing indications that, in the absence of real social life, technologically mediated interaction does not teach healthy social skills, but may indeed facilitate inappropriate, predatory or damaging exchanges.

It is the developmental task of a teenager to learn social skills in the larger community. Young people are hungry for social interaction and become all the more eager for “social media” if their physical environment does not offer enough real social life. Yet interacting with an iPhone or laptop may provide social nourishment that is as unhealthy as fast food.

Lack of opportunities to develop face-to-face social skills can lead to many unfortunate side effects including loneliness, shyness, depression, suicide, bullying, and violence. These social problems are at disturbingly high levels among our young people. See: Planning for Healthy Living: The Next Challenge

In 1989, Tietjen observed: “In Western societies, we have perhaps lost sight of the crucial role of social support in preparing children for their adult roles. Families are often fragmented and socially isolated, relationships transient, and the roles of parents, schools, and other institutions unclear and discontinuous. … there are many Western children and adolescents for whom the discontinuities are defeating, and who fail to make the transition from childhood to competent adulthood for lack of continuous and coherent social support.”

Stanley Greenspan (1997) warned, “as children become more alienated from the lives of others… we can expect to see increasing levels of violence and extremism and less collaboration and empathy.” He emphasizes that children need “to grow up amid a network of close interactions with adults.” Until recently, he observed, “even in cities, families spent their days mostly within the compass of neighborhoods one could easily traverse on foot… Ordinary life thus naturally and routinely provided the conditions that the complex human nervous system needs to fulfill its potential.”

Just as the car has replaced our feet in almost all journeys, resulting in huge health problems, so mediated communication has largely taken the place of face-to-face interaction for many, especially the young, and they are already suffering serious symptoms of social ill health.

We must take these indications as seriously as we are finally beginning to take obesity seriously.  We need place-based communities with potential for rich face-to-face interaction – if not for our own mental health and sense of well-being, then for the sake of the younger generation.