How social media helps and hurts your social life

Studies on social media are mixed

Is always-on social communication leading to deep social connections, or is it stressing us out and displacing meaningful relationships? The Wall Street Journal asked two experts with opposing views to make their cases.

According to a recent Pew Research survey, 71% of Americans use Facebook at least occasionally and 45% of users check the site several times a day. It is only one indication of how pervasive social networks, instant messaging, and other technologically-enabled forms of communication have become.

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills argues that technology is hurting our real-world relationships. However, Keith Hampton, a professor of Communication and Public Policy at Rutgers University's school of communication, says technological change has made people more socially connected than ever.

Crowding out connections

Rosen says portable computers, smartphones, and social communication have revolutionized how people interact—but not for the best. "The total effect has been to allow us to connect more with the people in our virtual world—but communicate less with those who are in our real world," he writes.

While people are communicating more than ever, they are not spending as much time cultivating truly meaningful relationships. Rosen says the constant barrage of alerts and notification is preventing us from bonding with people in the real world.

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This creates an anxiety to compulsively connect online, which "leaves little time for our real-world relationships," argues Rosen.

Research shows online social interactions have less psychological value. Rosen cites one study finding that empathy is one-sixth as effective at making recipients feel supported when delivered online than when given in the real world.

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The positives of virtual communication

Conversely, Hampton argues that online social media interaction actually bolsters our meaningful relationships.

He cites studies showing that social media users have more diverse close relationships—and a higher number of them too. Social media also allows people to stay in contact with individuals they might have otherwise lost touch with, such as friends from high school.

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"In our closest relationships, today's technologies don't replace in-person interaction, they supplement it," he says. While Hampton acknowledges that social media can come in "small sips," he argues that they "add up to a big gulp of information about the activities, interests and opinions of the people we connect with."

Hampton also asserts that social media does not have a negative effect on mental health. "My recent studies have found that even the highest users of email, mobile phones and social media tend not to report higher levels of stress," he writes.

"For the majority of people, most of the time, communication is not a psychological ailment. Technology does not come between us," he concludes (Rosen/Hampton, Wall Street Journal, 5/10 [subscription required]).

The takeaway: Experts disagree as to whether or not always-on social communication is increasing or decreasing our sense of meaningful social connection.

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