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.