Tech affair

Technology and social media could be isolating us from meaningful connections


A strophysics sophomore Jessica Martin said she isn’t addicted to social media, but the desire to constantly check it prompted her to delete her accounts .

“It only lasted a couple weeks, but I got rid of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook off my phone,” Martin said. “I was checking up on too many people and I was just like, ‘I need to stop,’ so I got rid of the apps.”

Despite her efforts, Martin said the desire to keep in contact with her friends, acquaintances and others overwhelmed her resolve to break away from technology.

The world has entered the age of interconnectivity - the possibility of digital communication with any person halfway across the room or across the world. Mobile devices have made it even easier for people to stay up-to-date on the latest news.

People can share, converse, discuss and receive feedback from friends, acquaintances and strangers without leaving home or looking from the screen. Although the variety of social media platforms provides new methods of social interaction, some argue social websites and mobile devices are stifling human interaction and negatively affecting mental development.

A convenient distraction

At parties and other social outings, kinesiology senior Richard Szczesny said he often notices students face-in-screen, checking Facebook, tweets and texts, rather than enjoying company.

“When you go out to dinner and all your friends are sitting on their phones, it’s like, ‘Well, why are we even here?’” Szczesny said. “Why don’t we just stay home?”

Distraction from seeking company or hitting the books because of social media is an issue for many students, MSU Counseling Center Acting Director Scott Becker said.

“Clinically, we have been hearing from more students that they have identified their media usage as problematic, interfering with their academic performance and taking the place of actual, face-to-face social interaction,” Becker said in an email.

But Szczesny said he understands why some want constant connection when he returns from vacation and turns his phone on.

“When you’re on vacation, and you do put it away for awhile, and you get back and you realize, ‘Oh, man, what did I miss?’” he said. “I think that people get that constant feeling that they’re missing something because they’re not on social media or on the phone.”

In an attempt to alleviate issues associated with technology, the Counseling Center is considering “unplugged” initiatives featuring support groups and workshops in the residence halls.

An easy escape

In class, browsing social media is like playing virtual hooky. It can be a way of escaping the lecture to converse with friends, but some professors take notice.

Telecommunication, information studies and media professor Bob LaRose realizes that students in class are using social media when they display what he calls the Facebook stare: an open-mouth smile, bulging eyes and short distance between their face and the computer screen.

“Students are social animals; they like to keep up with their circle of friends,” LaRose said. “Some people get wrapped up in it for a while and then they move on to the next thing or realize it’s affecting things that are important in their lives and restore self-control.”

The appeal of media, psychology professor Linda Jackson said, comes from gratifying basic needs. Jackson said one hypothesis, the Uses and Gratifications Theory, argues that people use media for diversion and entertainment, along with using it to feel good, access information and connect with others.

Apart from gratifying basic needs, Becker said technology contains addictive qualities that, under heavy use, can morph the brain structure.

“The high level of visual stimulation, the randomness of messages and alerts, and the pace and variety of information have been shown in recent studies to have strong addictive elements, including one study that found that brain scans of heavy internet users resembled those of people addicted to substances such as drugs or alcohol,” Becker said in an email.

Social, but lonely

The contradiction of social media use, Becker said, is that the more students use it, the more often they feel isolated.

“Research suggests that we are doing more and more on social media in part because it is not satisfying ... what we actually need is a sense of emotional connection and face-to-face or physical contact,” he said. “Social media tends to eliminate the physical and emotional sense that we are cared for and connected to others, in spite of the number of friends we might have on Facebook or the number of followers on Twitter.”

Many prominent celebrities have been taking notice of the trend as well. Comedian Louis C.K. once argued against buying his children cellphones because digital communication lacks the emotional feedback necessary for learning empathy.

“You know, kids are mean, and it’s (because) they’re trying it out,” he said in an interview with Conan O’Brien last year. “They look at a kid and they go, ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ ... But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’”

Although C.K.‘s theory drew laughs from the audience, it also parallels recent research findings.

Becker said a study from the University of Michigan reported that Millennial generation college students scored 40 percent lower on measures of empathy than previous generations. Changes in emotional understanding could relate to the increase of digital socializing since 2000, a correlation other studies have indicated, Becker said.

“Other research in the social sciences has suggested a link between immersion in social media and trends toward narcissistic attitudes and decreased empathy and compassion for others,” Becker said. “The implication is that media usage may be leading us to feel more disconnected from others and less emotionally concerned for their well-being.”

Considering consequences

The correlation between the overuse of social media and detriments to social and mental health currently is a hypothesis, Becker said. Nonetheless, he said it is a strong possibility that should prompt a consideration of our relationship to technology and to each other.

“It appears that we are collectively more anxious, more socially isolated at an emotional level, more stressed and depressed, less cognitively focused, and more self-referential than we were a decade ago, and technology may be playing a significant role in that process,” Becker said.

LaRose said the current issue is determining whether issues such as narcissism, loneliness and depression are caused by social media, or whether people with those issues seek social media.

Staff writer Meagan Beck contributed to this report.

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