So Far, Yet So Close: How Social Media is Changing Intimacy

July 22, 2014 12:04 pm

When social media transformed the word ‘friend’ into a verb, we knew something was up.

Social media has, naturally, had a huge impact on the way we form, maintain and view our our relationships with friends and family. At the same time, we now have a seemingly instant connection to anyone, anywhere. But do we sacrifice our connection to those people who matter most to us when we are able to listen to so many other voices each day? Some think the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

article-2498811-1956796800000578-390_634x411 Many of the articles or videos you can find on the web argue the combination of social media and texting are responsible for providing us with a sense of connection to other people rather than anything close to a real, tangible connection. This argument has been made many times– Sherry Turkle is one example. Her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, shares her argument and her points are summarized  in her more famous TED talk.

While concern over the effects of social media on intimacy are certainly warranted, given how much our relationships are poised to be transformed by such media, what is actually the case, is we still don’t really know what is happening.

Modern youths are a great place to start asking about social media and intimacy because these so-called ‘web natives’ have never experienced a world with out it. The Kaiser Family Foundation, an American health policy journal, recently published a study that found children between the ages of 8-18 spend, on average, 10 hours and 45 minutes consuming online media products each day–an unbelievable amount, really. The study specifically addresses what effect all this time on the web is doing to their confidence, their study habits and their development as fully functioning human beings.

On the one hOn The Sofaand, the report found heavier users of various web services report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment. However, simply stating such a finding is misleading because it is not clear whether or not these young people turn to social media to remedy some pre-existing lack of personal contentment.

In terms of grades, the study’s findings are a little more conclusive with 66 per cent of light users achieving high grades and only 23 per cent of light users achieving low grades. Conversely, the picture is a little different for heavy users, among whom 51 per cent achieve high grades whereas 43 per cent achieve low grades.

While the study’s findings seem conclusive when we talk about light users of web services, the difference for heavy users make both stats seem a little meaningless. A four per cent difference is really quite negligible. In addition, the study doesn’t really address what sorts of things might be causing their lack of social media use. What kind of outside pressures might prevent them from using web services? Is it possible that higher achieving students wish to appear not to use social media and therefore answer these questions dishonestly? Are the examiners’ definitions of heavy and light use different from the students’ definitions?

Of course, web natives are not the only users of social media but there are interesting findings in studies which investigate the use of the internet in the workplace. One writer in particular, Stefana Broadbent, author of the book L’Intimité au travail, argues the internet allows the workplace to be something more like pre-industrial, artisan workshops where a family would work from home together. She sees the big shift in how we experienced work as happening with the industrial revolution where we were separated from our families all day at the factory. Broadbent argues that, while the media of the internet and text messaging aren’t exactly the same as actually working side by side with your family, they nonetheless allow us to keep up with our loved ones throughout the day, strengthening these relationships.

Are Broadbent’s views overly optimistic?

It is clear the rise of social media has not meant an immediate return to some imaginary, pre- industrial utopia–but is there something to be said for being able to say ‘hello’ to a family member whenever you want? Broadbent argues companies need to take notice of this use of social media in the workplace and, rather than trying to prevent it, they need to learn to accommodate it within the workplace atmosphere.

Could social media blur the lines between work and home? If it did, would it be desirable?

Lori Cluff Schade, from Brigham Young University, reports the findings from a study she conducted on the use of texting in relationships. She found texting is, in the end, a pretty complex tool. Her study focused on couples who were married, engaged or in serious relationships and were between the ages of 18-25. She found texting can often improve intimacy but, not surprisingly, can lead to miscommunication. Her final conclusion was texting needs to be seen as a tool which can be used to enrich or enervate any relationship.

The full impact of social media on intimacy isn’t something we can really get our heads around just yet. Twitter, for example, only just turned 6-years-old. Added to its youth, social media is changing with every second that passes, responding to different needs and to the innovative capacities of its users. What might be true about Twitter or Facebook today, could be different tomorrow.

In the end, what most criticisms of social media express is more of an apprehension, a reasonable one perhaps, at the quick transformation of the ways we relate to each other. It is certainly important we make sure to temper our excitement toward these new modes of communication but maybe we ought to celebrate the positives a little more too.

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