The Impact of Social Media on Face to Face Interaction and Relationships

Facebook, the social media network that we all know and love (or hate, or have an “it’s complicated” relationship with) has become a ubiquitous aspect of our lives. Allison Graham in her TED talk says that on average Americans pick up and check our cell phones as much as 150 times per day. What are we doing each time we pick up our phones? Why do we feel so helplessly compelled to check our phones so often? We want to know immediately if someone likes a post or a selfie because research shows that these tiny compliments and comments give us a little dopamine rush each time. A dopamine rush, we might think, is a good thing, especially from something so harmless, right? Research over the past few years has been questioning the notion of this harmlessness of the dopamine boost we get from likes, and is finding that it is, like the dopamine rush we get from drugs, addictive. Aside from the addictive nature of Facebook gratification, Facebook can potentially harm our mental and emotional wellness, damage our relationships, and cause an overall sense of loneliness.

Social networking sites are convenient for connecting with others but is there a danger that lies in substituting virtual relationships for real life interactions? Social media allows for it’s users to curate their own presence within the internet. The ridiculous act of extending your phone at different angles and positions in what feels like the endless search for “perfect lighting” is lost when the satisfactory selfie is uploaded. The “story” feature on Instagram and snapchat is just that: a story, a work of fiction, but how often is it received as such? The desire to maintain a social networking presence interferes with our ability to interact in the (real-life) presence of others. Anxieties arise over whether we will be liked as much as we are online as in the real world. Do we have experiences for the sake of experiencing them or for how they will be catalogued and presented later? Is there such a thing as living in the moment or are we capitalizing off of moments for the instant gratification of a “like” they might provide us with later on?

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“All social media platforms include three essential components: a space for users to construct a profile, the possibility of linking many users to this profile and the ability to exchange content with one another” (Boyd and Ellison, 2008). The first two components that make up a social media platform seem to be the areas that make it complicated for some of us. Social media allows for it’s users to curate their own presence within the internet. Practically all social media users wish to have a degree of control over the image of themselves that is presented on the internet. This need to control our image comes from the desire to achieve likes and comments that improve our sense of self worth and again, gives our brains a release of dopamine. This construction and edited version of ourselves and other people that we constantly encounter on Facebook leads us to compare our lives to what we see through the filter of Facebook and imparts on us a distorted sense of ourselves and what our lives should be like. It is not uncommon for this to lead to feelings of jealousy of others and a sense that we are inadequate.

Another way in which Facebook and social media reduces and disrupts our sense of self and our relationships is that what we are presented with online can only be consumed through photos and generally short pieces of text. When we reduce our thoughts and feelings this way we lose all of the non-verbal cues that make our social lives rich and complex. Studies show that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the spoken word (Mehrabian). While the context of a situation plays an important role in determining someone's emotional state, the use of social networking as a means of communication is solely reliant on words expressed through a digital platform, without the inclusion of the actual body that is expressing them. Non-verbal cues and tonal inflections can provide absolutely no indication of one's emotional state or intent with the language they express if they cannot even be seen, or are reduced to the function of a smiling or frowning yellow ball. Can 30 or so sunshine colored spheres really encompass the range of human emotions? When our communication with others is reduced to text, our ability to interpret social cues and emotional responses is diminished, therby complicating the possibility of creating deep, lasting, meaningful relationships.

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Returning to the “150 times a day” average that we look at our phones we can also deduce that being checked in with our phones and reading posts from other people throughout our day reduces our “alone time”. Free time away from “society” is vital to the function of many psychological processes. “Privacy provides personal autonomy that allows us to be free from manipulation by others and thus have more control over our lives and outcomes. Privacy also provides a space for emotional release from the demands of impression management and emotion regulation that go along with life within a social group.” (Zurbriggen, 253). Frequenting one’s Facebook feed disrupts these necessary process that occur when we are alone and “unplugged” from our devices and social media platforms.

Bonanno, Shelley Gallasso. "Social Media’s Impact on Relationships." Psych Central. N.p., 17 July 2016.
Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Cacioppo, J.T., & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: Norton

Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.

Seidman, Dr. Gwendolyn, and Anthony Roberson. "How Facebook Affects Our Relationships." Psychology Today. N.p., 28 May 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.