Through a Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face: Sensitive Souls and Social Media

There is an idea out there that’s prevalent but which has little or no scientific support:  that people who use more social media are less sensitive, less empathic, and less emotionally attuned. My students Lee Dunn, Amy Medina and I wanted to put that assumption to the test (and reported these findings at the Society for Psychophysiological Research Annual Conference). We found the opposite: that people who prefer to use technology like social media to communicate with others are actually more emotionally sensitive and more empathic. These folks aren’t emotionally stunted or disconnected. If anything, they are more attuned to their emotions and to the emotions of others, and also might be more challenged by these emotions. They are “sensitive souls.”

This makes sense when you start to think about how hard face-to-face interactions can be.When we use social media, we may feel in control and safe compared to face to face. Technology affords a comfortable distance. It’s simply easier to tell someone you’re angry via email or IM, without having to deal with their reactions in person. So, if you’re an emotionally sensitive person, you might be drawn to social media. This is a judgment-free statement. Our findings don’t weigh in on whether this helps or hinders a person’s social and emotional skills. That is the critical next step in our research. Here is what we know so far:

How we put it to the test. While previous studies ask people to report on very basic aspects of their social media use – like how many hours a week they use social media sites – we did something new. We asked people how they prefer to communicate with others (and what they actually did over the past 6 months) when they need to express emotions like anger or excitement, ask for or give social support during emotionally tough times, and exchange information. For each question, answers could vary from 100% using technology (not including the phone) to 100% using face-to-face interactions. Many people showed a strong face-to-face preference, but just as many showed a strong tech preference.

Then, we asked people to tell us about their emotional lives – emotional highs and lows, empathy for others, personality, and satisfaction with the social support they receive from others. Finally, we recorded EEG (aka “brainwaves”) while they viewed emotional pictures. While EEG doesn’t give us the power to directly access people’s consciousness (Oh, Dennis Quaid, you really had us believing that you could EEG your way into our brains in the 1984 movie Dreamscape), EEG can measure the degree to which our brains are sensitive to different types of emotional information – pleasant, disgusting, erotic, dangerous, and cute, cuddly things. We showed participants everything from sex to kittens, and graves to gore.

The power of EEG, portrayed by the movie Dreamscape (1984). Dennis Quaid is probably NOT looking at pictures of kittens.

Findings. Data analyses are incomplete and are not yet published, so I’ll only discuss the broad strokes of our findings. As I stated at the top, those who prefer to communicate via social media and technology versus face-to-face interactions are sensitive souls: they report feeling more negative emotions (like anxiousness and sadness), are less extroverted, and are less satisfied with the social support they receive from others. On the other hand, they also report feeling more empathic towards others (for example, “I get a strong urge to help when I see someone who is upset” or “it upsets me to see someone being treated disrespectfully”).

Complementing this, EEG findings show that those with a social media/tech preference have stronger brain responses to pictures portraying mortality – graves, sick people, dying loved ones. That is, the brains of folks who prefer social media are more sensitive to pictures that are reminders of death and loss.

This is not about social media causing anything! The popular press often describes research about social media in inaccurate ways – saying that social media caused people to be a certain way (e.g., the idea of Facebook depression). This sounds sexy but is just wrong most of the time. Unless you’ve done experiments that show social media directly change something about people, or you’ve tracked how social media predicts changes in people over time, you cannot even begin to discuss causality.

So what can we discuss? What does this all mean? What it means is that our findings are not about causality, they are descriptive. These results help us to describe the social-emotional profile of people who prefer and use tech-mediated versus face-to-face social interactions – their personalities, goals, strengths, and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, this can help us understand the growing role of social media in our everyday routines, and why, for some, these tools can feel like life boats in the stormy seas of our lives. What remains unclear is whether these life boats are going to bring us to shore or whether we will be lost at sea (ok, this metaphor is getting a little much).

Where are we going with this? Importantly, we have no idea what the long-term costs or benefits of social media are for our sensitive souls. That is where I am really going with this research. I believe we need to track how a tech preference influences us from the cradle to the rocking chair: in our digital natives who are using these tools before they are out of diapers; in adults, who almost can’t remember a time when these tools didn’t exist; and in older adults, who may be discovering the immense world that opens up before them when they use technology to communicate with others.

11 thoughts on “Through a Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face: Sensitive Souls and Social Media

  1. Does reporting your findings preclude you from publishing your paper online? Or, when might a published work be available?

    Since finding controls that don’t use social media would be difficult I think it’s clever to not use that (use or non-use) to differentiate the two groups but preferences for what to use for a specific emotional state. Presumably these are “voluntary” communications versus something required for job (my old company forbade using technology for “emotional” things, like reviews, or any compliments or reprimands, etc).

    1. No, this doesn’t preclude me from publishing. The data were reported at a conference, so in a sense that is a formal “published” version of this work (the abstracts for this conference are considered a publication). I am commenting about this product of the research.

      This is completely different from the published paper that will eventually be out there – although the story will be just about the same with perhaps a few bells and whistles thrown in. and of course, the specifics will be in the paper, not in my blog post.

      Once the paper is accepted for publication I will post the in-press version on my blog so people can read it before it is readily available. We share our in-press documents all the time in academia, so I am assuming this is kosher….although we might not have caught up with the complexities of how information is shared these days.

  2. Interesting stuff.
    Personally, the findings support the habits I observe in my own home. My fiance is more sensitive, I believe, and she does use social media much more frequently than I do.
    Can’t wait to see the results from the next step of the research. As a high school teacher, I tend to believe that incessant social media use can be detrimental for young people and their social-emotional skills, but all I have are plenty of informal observations and anecdotes.

  3. Thanks for this. My first real efforts to interact with people were online, and it took years of that before I wanted to do anything face-to-face. Knowing the associations people might have when they hear something like that makes the subject a bit awkward, so it’s good to know that there could be something corrective in store. I can’t wait to read the paper.

    1. Thanks for commenting! There are so many assumptions out there and it seems like many people who have opinions on this topic have an axe to grind. Although I can’t help but have my own feelings on the issue from personal experiences, I do my best to be impartial. I think approaching these issues in a black and white way is really missing the boat. How can any tool – and social media is only a tool, perhaps unique in some ways, but still a tool – be all good or all bad? It must depend on how it’s used.

  4. Maybe we need a clearer definition of ‘sensitive’. My dictionary includes ‘easily irritated’ and ‘easily offended’! As for being more ’emotionally attuned’ to others – that’s not such good news if the ‘destructive emotions’ ((c) Dalai Lama) that one is attuned to are undesirable in the first place. It can’t be good to attune oneself to anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, etc. Likewise ’empathy’ – is it good to be empathetic with a psychopath or a demagogue? Maybe the positives we should be looking for ought to include the capacity to be reflective, intuitive, insightful, perceptive, imaginative, creative and self-aware. I’m not too sure how many facebookers, tweeters and bloggers possess these qualities. 50 – 50?

    1. Good point. I was using “sensitive souls” in a colloquial sense. When you put the words sensitive and soul together, in the way the phrase is commonly used, it doesn’t suggest irritation. It suggets emotionally attuned. As for whether this is good or bad, I am not making a judgement call. The proof will be in the pudding – what the data tell me – in terms of whether people showing these characteristics are happy, healthy, productive people.

      I think you’re right that we need to explore a broader array of positive outcomes. I included about 8 measures, and these yield a lot of information, but there is always something more to look for. The higher-level kinds of positives, like being insightful and self-aware, are hard to measure….it will be a challenge to figure out how to really get at these types of things in the lab. I don’t think social media users are any less likely than other groups to show these qualities. The 50-50 estimate – depending on the day, I feel like that is either over-generous or stingy ;-).

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