I remember when social media was non-existent (and I’m not that old). I saw an evolution from emails, to MSN, to Hi5, to Facebook – to the world as we now know it.
Socialising is now not just the norm, but an expectation. People that you have never met are suddenly your ‘friends’ in the digital world. I recently watched ‘Ready Player One’ and it scared me slightly how easy it would be to end up in the world the film portrayed.
But this is social life! The digital age is upon us… So, what does it matter?
It matters more than we realise. As adults, we look at social media and see a tool. Albeit a sometimes misused tool, it is still a tool. Younger generations that I have met in schools, use these tools and others, (i.e. online games) so much that it is part of their core vocabulary.
Unfortunately, the topic is not often taught in enough detail – other than to be ‘safe’.
There is limited education around the impact it is having on the way new generations are developing relationships. A few of the patterns of concern I have noticed include:
- The concept of private and public is blurred
- Mistaking a digital profile for a real life person
- The ease with which you can un-friend
Private Vs. Public
Imagine you are standing in a crowded street. You can be overhead by anyone on this street. A picture or recording of you can be taken by any fellow visitor. You would be careful about what you said and/or how you said it.
However, when using digital mediums we don’t have this in mind. The truth is the internet is the most crowded street on the planet – no matter how many privacy settings you use. This is something that I have reminded students of on many occasions.
Younger generations often share their thoughts, moods and life events with their ‘friends’, oblivious to how many of them they actually know. There is often no consideration about how these messages might be interpreted or understood by a passer by.
This not only makes them more susceptible to online harm, but means that they are likely to fall into a trap of sharing socially desirable messaging. They become focused on the response they will get from others, as opposed to the ability to grow uniquely into themselves. It is easy to be transformed into a ‘character’ that you feel will give you social status.
It is also more likely that the lack of foresight can mean, digitally, your mistakes will outlive you. (Even with GDPR, there is only so much that is possible once you have put something into the world).
Is this your real ‘social’ life?
By nature, the only things generally shared on social media are positive. Whilst adults can recognise there is a disparity, younger generations can fall into a trap of comparing their lives to digital examples.
We assume that everyone around us is in a successful job they love, a relationship that is beyond amazing, with perfect children. They’re also living life on a perfect timeline. It may not be the whole truth, but viewing these messages on a regular basis can affect the self-esteem of those that are not ‘living the dream’.
This is particularly damaging when you notice trends of negative comments from teenagers about others they considered to be their friends. I remember conversations with teenagers who felt isolated and outcast by their social groups. These discussions often involved numerous references to Snapchat and Instagram posts, as well as Facebook.
If you think your friends have no problems, you may not share yours for fear of ending the fun.
The number of people I have heard apologise for sharing negative or destructive feelings scares me. We are all entitled to have a full range of emotions. Whilst I wouldn’t encourage wallowing in these emotions, they do need to be expressed at least once.
When we hold everything in, the result becomes a lack of meaningful support systems. This is not to say the support is not available – but it is not accessible, because the individual is hiding their needs. With everyone striving to be independent and ‘picture perfect’, stress, depression and anxiety can grow out of proportion.
What’s next for social media?
I agree, social media is not going anywhere but this doesn’t mean we don’t need a little support in learning how best to utilise it.
A recent study discussed the need for more education around “how to interact on social networking sites. [Providing] tools that can allow for healthy, quality virtual relationships should be offered and these tools would promote the learning of new ways to interact.” I would echo this, adding there is a responsibility for all of us to establish meaningful relationships outside of it.
The need to look beyond the digital world is because human interaction is irreplaceable. Whilst the ping of a phone can develop the addictive dopamine we crave, it cannot alone generate long-term trust. Trust is reliant on being able to see people as they are. To be vulnerable and allow them to be vulnerable in return. Technology has a number of limits in this, as we rarely get to see facial expressions or body language that give us internal cues about the honesty and integrity of our companions.
What we can do to help is encourage the sharing of honest emotions in small, strong support networks. Find ways to explore the difficulties as well as the positives. Celebrate the full range of experiences and find meaning in the hard times – they can provide skills for the future.
Take time for face to face communication without digital distractions, and see how much you learn about yourself and everyone around you.