Therapy

E-Connections: Do Social Media Help or Hurt Our Relationships?

By Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sandra was willing to overlook her husband texting at the movie theater. She was even willing to overlook the phone calls he frequently took during dinner. But the frantic drive around Paris while they were on their “dream” vacation so that he could find a place to “plug in” was the final straw.

“His job is very demanding,” she said, flustered. “He says that’s the reason he needs to be on 24/7, but the truth is he’s completely addicted. I really think he needs ‘it’ as much as ‘it’ needs him.”

By Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.
Created May 10 2011 – 3:39pm

Sandra was willing to overlook her husband texting at the movie theater. She was even willing to overlook the phone calls he frequently took during dinner. But the frantic drive around Paris while they were on their “dream” vacation so that he could find a place to “plug in” was the final straw.

“His job is very demanding,” she said, flustered. “He says that’s the reason he needs to be on 24/7, but the truth is he’s completely addicted. I really think he needs ‘it’ as much as ‘it’ needs him.”

Sandra’s story has become a common complaint in therapy sessions across the nation. As social media pulls more people into its virtual world, many partners who have not yet succumbed to its grasp are reporting feeling abandoned and isolated, as if their partner is present in body, but missing in mind much of the time. And these feelings aren’t unique to intimate relationships. When we’re glued to a screen as much as we are, it’s not surprising to see the “here in body, there in mind” experience playing out in our relationships with friends, extended family, and children.

It falls right in line with the ongoing debate over the social impact of social media. At the crux of the argument is whether technology is causing us to sacrifice social connections for digital and virtual ones. In 2006, this debate was fueled by the release of a study conducted by sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears. The study found that since 1985, Americans have become much more socially isolated and have fewer connections with their neighbors and communities, which led the researchers to speculate that one cause may be the dramatic rise in Internet usage and mobile devices over the last twenty years.

These findings spurred the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit organization that investigates trends, issues, and attitudes affecting families and communities, to conduct a nationwide survey to explore the relationship between technology and social connections. Their results found that although it’s true that our social networks have shrunk by about one-third since 1985, face-to-face contact is still the most common method of connecting with family and friends. The data showed that in a typical year, face-to-face contacts occurred an average of 210 days compared to 195 days of mobile phone contact, 125 days of text messaging, 72 days of email contact, and 55 days of instant messaging. The survey also found that Internet usage doesn’t pull us away from public places. We still go to parks, cafes, and restaurants. The difference is that now we go with our devices.

But is this good news? Not if you consider it from the perspective of Linda Stone, a writer, speaker, and consultant on consumer trends and a former Apple and Microsoft executive. According to Stone, when we’re surrounded by a host of things that compete for our attention, we compromise by engaging in “continuous partial attention” or “cpa.” Stone describes cpa as a coping mechanism we use to keep from “missing” anything in a world in which we’re constantly bombarded with data and alerts that prevent us from focusing on any one thing, including people.

In contrast to multi-tasking, where the underlying motivation is to be more productive and more efficient by pairing a mundane activity with an activity that requires thought (e.g., writing a letter while eating lunch, taking a phone call while filling out routine paperwork), the underlying motivation of continuous partial attention is to scan all incoming material to make sure we don’t miss anything important. The problem, of course, is that to keep from “missing” something, we have to engage in two (or more) activities that require concentration and thought (e.g., having a conversation while reading an email, talking on the phone while driving), which is not an easy thing to do … or at least not an easy thing to do well. The end result is that when we’re in “cpa” mode, nothing receives our full attention, which may explain why some people report feeling disconnected from family and friends even when they are standing right next to you.

For better or worse, though, most agree that connecting through social media has become much more than a trend; it’s become a way of life. The key is to figure out how to reap its rewards without sacrificing the benefits of face-to-face contact; in other words, get the best of both worlds. As clinical psychologist Dr. Nicole Rantilla notes in a UWire article on the connection between students’ mental health and their technology use, social media can be a fun and interesting way to increase connections, but it’s important to make sure it doesn’t replace the value of relationships and attachment. “It’s all about ease and convenience,” she says, “even with making friends. I encourage people to utilize them to augment existing relationships, stay in touch, meet new people and cultivate meaningful interactions away from the computer, in addition to those at the computer.”

That may be good advice, but the debate over the influence of social media in our lives is certainly not going to end any time soon. In fact, on May 11, 2011, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research hosted a video debate between economist Tyler Cowen and philosopher Roger Scruton titled, “The End of Friendship: Do Social Media Destroy Human Relationships?” And as irony would have it, if you missed the podcast, AEI invites you to follow the debate via twitter or Facebook. Ahh, social media. Don’t you just love it?

 © 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, 

(http://www.psychologytoday.com)

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