As we spend more and more time snuggled up with our smartphones, laptops, and tablets, a big question looms: Are these devices bringing us closer together or further apart?
The answer may depend on which decade you were born in.
“Boomers and Gen-Xers may look at young people staring at their devices and think they’re being antisocial, but who is to say we’re right and they’re wrong? They’re just socializing differently,” says Robert Weiss, a counselor in Los Angeles and co-author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.
Weiss says that while new realities such as Facebook and FaceTime are changing the way people interact, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Technology can be a problem when it lets you avoid taking responsibility for your actions -- such as ‘ghosting’ someone instead of breaking up with them in person -- but it also gives us many different ways to build and maintain relationships, join communities, and express what we need from each other.”
Some research says instead of isolating people, technology is actually helping strengthen relationships.
“Our findings are very clear and consistent, that users of social networks tend to have more close relationships, not just online, but in real life,” says Keith Hampton, PhD, an associate professor of communication and public policy communication at Rutgers University.
Some of the positive ways technology is bolstering relationships include:
It leads to more offline interaction. Hampton would like to dispel the notion that the people who use technology the most are hiding in their apartments to avoid personal contact. He says online conversations often lead to an in-person coffee or dinner date.
“There is no evidence that digital interactions are replacing face-to-face interactions,” he explains. “In fact, we have found that users of digital technology are also the heaviest users of public spaces, such as cafes, restaurants, and religious centers.”
Those relationships are closer. Hampton found that users of Facebook had 9% more people they can confide in and discuss important topics with when compared with other Internet users. Regular users of cell phones and instant messaging also had more close ties.
Facebook users also scored higher than non-users in measures of social support. They had more friends who were willing and able to offer advice, companionship, and physical help. Hampton adds digital technology provides a platform to ask for that help quickly.
Technology helps relationships last over time and distance. For friends who can’t always meet in person, technology helps them stay connected. In the pre-digital days, Hampton explains, if you moved out of town for a new job or switched schools, it was a real challenge to stay in touch, no matter how close you were.
“You don’t let relationships go dormant,” he says.
It makes us aware of our group’s diversity. In the past, it was easy to assume all your friends shared similar beliefs to yours, Hampton says. But with social media, we get many more daily peeks into what everyone is doing and thinking.
“Little pieces of information about your life, such as where you ate dinner, who you were with, and your political leanings, are visible in ways they were not before,” Hampton says. “This makes us more aware of the diversity of the people in our social circle.”
It creates communities: “Before the industrial revolution, you lived in communities with your grandparents and aunts and cousins all next door,” Weiss says. Now because of work and education and movement, families may be more spread out, so people flock to communities online, Hampton says.
“In analog days, you were limited to whoever was around you and which organizations were nearby, but now you can access a community based on beliefs, interests, and shared goals.”
Perhaps the most interesting findings are among teenagers. They’re the first generation to grow up not knowing life without social media.
Since this generation of teenagers has more homework and activities than any before it, much of their social life is online. A recent survey found that only 25% of teenagers spend face-to-face time outside of school with their friends every day. But 55% text their friends every day.
More than 80% of teens in the survey say social media makes them feel more connected to their friends’ lives, and 70% feel more in tune with their friends’ feelings.
Though we often hear about teen bullying, 68% of teens on social media say they get support from their social network through tough times.
It’s not all smiley-face emojis, however. What other people post makes 21% of teens feel worse about their lives. Pressure compels 40% to post only things that make them look good to others. But as Weiss points out, the stress to maintain a certain image has always been a challenge for both teens and adults, with or without technology.
“Back in the Mad Men days, everyone felt they had to dress perfectly and have their hair done just so to present a perfect image,” he says. “We’ve always had people cheating on each other and kids have always bullied each other. Now there’s just a different platform to do it.”