Social Media: “A Flight from Conversation”?

I’ve started a research project on the impact of social media on our social and emotional lives. When I first began, I carefully considered Sherry Turkle’s work. For the past 15 years, she has written passionately about our evolving relationship with technology. Most recently (see her TED talk), she argues that the way we are using technology, in particular social media, has created “disturbing new habits” that have the potential to make us feel more alone rather than more connected. In other words, we are getting used to being alone, together – being with each other, but elsewhere at the same time. If you’ve ever sat at a table or in a room where everyone was busy on their devices rather than talking with each other, you know what she’s getting at.

I think Sherry Turkle has a lot of important things to say. But she is a divisive character. She does not mince words about what she thinks the implications of our technology habits are in terms of our psychological well-being – more alienation, more aloneness, loss of a capacity for solitude, and stunted development of some of the most basic of social skills, like having a conversation.  What is easy to forget, however, is that she also argues that these are habits that we can all change – if we choose to take a look at how our devices not only change what we do but change who we are.

It’s also important to remember that her research is entirely qualitative and anecdotal. Lab-based and quantitative research remains to be done to test her hypotheses. Below, I list a few ideas that she highlights, along with my ideas about how her hypotheses could actually be tested by empirical, lab-based research. For the record, these issues are not exactly what I am studying now, but stay tuned for blog posts that give you my results hot off the data presses.

1. Social media is a flight from conversation. This is the notion that the more we text, post, and email, the less we actually take time to talk with people. An important issue here is that having a conversation is a skill – one that we learn through practice.  So, where does that leave the kids today, who are trying to gain these skills? Are they going to be a bunch of Neanderthals communicating in non-grammatical text-ese? Probably not – that’s the future dystopia vision – but how will the Millenials learn to communicate?

One way to test this is to actually track teens over time, during periods that are critical for building conversational skills (early adolescence maybe). Then, analyze how differences in the frequency and types of social media use correspond over time with conversational skills and abilities (measured via existing IQ tests that tap verbal comprehension and production or measured via some newly developed measure). The longitudinal component is very important here because if you are looking at social media use and conversation skills at the same time, you can’t draw causal conclusions (i.e., it could just be that those with fewer conversational skills prefer the ease of social media). In contrast, by looking at how social media use predicts a trajectory of conversational development over time, you have firmer ground to stand upon if you conclude that social media use is causing conversational deficits. If supported, such findings lead to a lot of other important questions – like what do we do about it?

2. We are drawn to social media because we can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. This is tricky to study empirically because there are several very subjective components to this. One is that we need to measure peoples’ goals accurately – e.g., that people are using social media to gain a sense of companionship. This is self-report based, and there are issues like presentation biases (people might not want to admit why they use social media) that could make such things difficult to measure accurately. Secondly, how do you get at how people feel about the demands of friendship? Will research participants report – “Oh, yes, it’s just too hard dealing with my brother’s emotional demands over the phone all the time. Much easier to text.” Well, maybe some of us would articulate this, but many others might not even be aware that this is what they are doing.

So, in addition to asking people to report on their goals and motivations for social media use, we need to get at implicit processes that they may not be fully conscious of. In the psychology literature, there are tasks such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT requires users to make a series of rapid judgments, which researchers believe might reflect attitudes that people are unwilling to reveal publicly. For example, in gender bias research, the IAT has been used to show that most people associate women more strongly with family and men more strongly with careers. Could the IAT be used to examine attitudes towards social media and friendship?

3. We no longer want to give our full attention to anything, and our devices are the way to escape the “boring bits.” This is also tricky. A lot of recent research has examined multi-tasking in terms of whether it compromises your performance on the tasks you’re trying to do at the same time. The answer is: It does. But, in our hearts, we all knew that, didn’t we?

The issue here, though, is somewhat different than multitasking. It’s about the motivation to multitask. The idea is that we multitask to escape boredom, keep our minds busy and moving at all times.  Maybe some of us do it because of low boredom threshold, feeling uncomfortable with our thoughts, or having so much to do that any time we feel there is an “empty” moment, we try to fill it. There are lots of possibilities. But how do we study this? One way might be to actually put people in a boring situation (some staged boring lecture), with their devices, and see when and if they use them. If they do, ask them about the goals they were trying to meet (I had to answer that one email that was in the back of my mind;  I was bored, and wanted to see what was on my twitter feed). Once we have systematic responses to a real-life scenario from multiple people, we can start to seek out trends in the data.

But, this isn’t so satisfying. So, what if we add some biological measures to get at how using the device changes how we actually feel? Now we’re getting somewhere, because this reveals what using devices “buys us” and why we feel almost addicted to our devices at times. For example, one study showed that using Facebook decreases your physiological signs of stress – it calms you down. But in contrast, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, a study published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. Thus, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all- was ineffective in conveying comfort.  Taken together, these types of studies help get at why (and why not) devices become an integral part of how we cope, and of our emotional lives.

Bottom line. These are all just ideas. But I believe the bottom line is this: We need the Sherry Turkles of the world to help identify these issues and develop compelling hypotheses (and we need those who would disagree with her), but we also need people to, literally, put these ideas to the test.

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