If technology helps us connect with others, that could have a positive effect on our happiness.
All of us are anxious about our dependence on our devices. The negative effects of our smartphone addiction have been widely publicized, with alarming headlines such as “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” and “Smartphone addiction could be changing your brain.” This complaint is not new; it was voiced by the public when newspapers first appeared, with fears that people would give up the energizing benefits of morning discussion in favor of reading the news.
Do we really want to believe such a dire prediction about technology’s future? Sure, there’s cause for concern. A decline in attention span, debilitating sadness, and even an increased risk of brain cancer have all been linked to excessive smartphone use. However, one persistent worry persists: Smartphones can’t be beneficial for us because they supplant face-to-face interaction.
It’s common knowledge that today’s youth prefer texting to actual conversation when they get together. But could those young people possibly be gaining something substantial from all that texting?
Science of relationships
An overview of the literature on technology-mediated communication indicates mixed results. Online socialization has been shown to aid those who suffer from social anxiety and loneliness. Other research has shown that spending too much time engaging in online social activities can lead to feelings of isolation, a decline in happiness, and a crippling reliance on technology-mediated interaction to the point where people prefer it to in-person communication.
One could be tempted to conclude that some of these studies must be correct and others incorrect, but there is too much data on both sides for this to be ignored. The impact of social media, on the other hand, is more nuanced. Subtly varied outcomes might result from seemingly identical actions. The benefits and drawbacks of engaging in social interactions in the virtual realm depend on a number of factors, with the devil being in the specifics.
This is not a new idea; in fact, even the earliest investigations into the social consequences of the internet yielded contradictory results in the 1990s. It has been argued that more research into contextual variables is necessary to fully grasp the effects of online socialization. The next step is to answer the questions of when, how, and why some online interactions are beneficial and others are harmful.
Connection behaviors paradigm for analyzing human interaction
Because of my training as a relationship scientist, I can’t help but view online interactions through a lens that is distinct from that of other theorists. It’s a virtuous cycle: when people show they care about one another by trying to comprehend the other’s situation and point of view, they become closer. If I confide in you and you treat me with respect, I’m much more likely to tell you more personal things in the future, and the same goes for you.
Therefore, every conversation between any two people is a chance to advance their friendship with one another. This is an opportunity that is often missed, though, as most of us aren’t about to strike up a deep conversation with the barista who just asked for our order. But contact is always possible in principle, whether we’re talking over the phone or sharing a meal in person.
Strong bonds with other people are the foundation of a happy and healthy life. Even more so than smoking many cigarettes daily, social isolation is a powerful predictor of mortality. Start with how it affects our social lives if you want to know how important technology is to our health.
Positive outcomes from technology-mediated interactions are the ones most likely to strengthen bonds between people. Scheduling online contacts with folks you see frequently appears to pay off in terms of enhanced social integration. Trying to alleviate feelings of isolation by spending time online is counterproductive, but actively seeking out human interaction may be a great source of fulfillment.
The good results of technology-mediated encounters are the ones most likely to strengthen connections.
Conversely, it appears that we get little from technology-mediated exchanges that don’t directly address our personal connections, and may even suffer negative consequences as a result. Researchers have shown that users who use Facebook primarily for newsfeed-based information consumption rather than for social interaction report lower levels of happiness and greater levels of depression after logging off.
That’s a prime case of “social snacking,” wherein one uses something passively to pass the time with others. Like junk food, social snacking can make you feel full for a little while, but it won’t do much good for you in the long run. Reading your friends’ updates on social media without commenting on them may make you feel closer to them, but it doesn’t actually create any closer bonds.
Another disadvantage of passive participation is the increased risk of being judged negatively by others. Self-esteem, happiness, and well-being all take a hit when we measure ourselves against others’ carefully crafted online personas. It’s easy to miss the less picturesque aspects of people’s lives when we consume their digital lives without connecting with them, and this effect is compounded when we do so.
When considering how time spent on social media could affect our well-being, the interpersonal connection behaviors framework falls short. There are plenty of other risks associated with using the internet, such as the risk of emotional contagion from reading unfavorable news or the risk of wasting time. Nonetheless, decades of seemingly conflicting findings can be explained by looking at how people connect with one another. And even if the framework itself is challenged by future work, its basic principle is guaranteed to be upheld: we have to research the particulars of how people are spending their time online if we are to grasp its anticipated repercussions.
Those who are concerned about how much time they spend online can benefit from this approach in the meantime. Make sure you’re using social media for social reasons, putting some consideration into how it may enhance your life and the people in it, and you’ll have a far better time in the digital world.