Are you often checking in on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other one of the new social media networks? If so, then it's very likely you've been unwittingly seduced by them. That is, that you've fallen into the trap of relying on them for affirmation, validation, and a sense of belonging that they can never fully provide. At least not for long. Which is why you keep returning for more. And more. And more. But it's never enough.
Don't get me wrong. I love Facebook, Twitter, and all the social media tools that enable me to connect with friends, family and fabulous people like you whom I've likely never met. But as useful as these tools are, it's important to appreciate what social networks are, and what they are not. More so, it's vital not to become overly reliant on them to do things they simply cannot do.
It's all too easy to become addicted to the instant spark of gratification we get when someone likes our Facebook update, retweets our brilliance, or reposts a pic from Instagram. Social networks appeal to our vanity and play to our vulnerability. They seduce us with the implicit promise that, if we get enough friends or followers or likes, we will feel truly significant in the world. But, alas, like any addiction, no matter how many likes we get, the high is quickly outlived and we are forced to head back for another round of posts and likes and follower counts. It's a vicious cycle.
Research by the International Center for Media & Public Agenda (ICMPA) looked into the habits of social media users and revealed that as people invest time building ever more expansive social networks online, the quality of their offline networks and relationships diminishes. The reason is simple: Nothing can ever replace the good old fashioned in-person conversations -- where we cannot hide behind our screens and devices -- in building truly meaningful rewarding and sustaining genuine (and often less than picture perfect) relationships.
The problem is multi-fold. The time we spend socializing online not only discourages face-to-face communication, but it also undermines our confidence at engaging in real conversations with real people about the real problems and issues that thread through our lives. Indeed, social networking provides a means of escape, an easy out on having to confront those parts of our lives we wish were different; more glamorous, and less mundane.
In one study, Ph.D. student Sergei Golitsinski, member of the International Center for Media & Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, was shocked to see, "how many students around the world wrote that going without media not only severed their connections to their friends, but challenged their sense of self."
Online websites promise avatars that will allow us to admire our bodies, love our lives, and have a dream romance in all 50 shades of grey. But at what cost to our real life -- our marriage, body, finances, work, and friendships -- when we log off and are confronted with the reality of our lives? Just as the most mesmerizing avatars cannot compensate for what's missing in real life, nor can an online social network ever replace a real one. (Will you tweet to that?) A study by the American Sociological Association found that the number of people saying that there is no one with whom they can discuss important matters nearly tripled over the last two decades. About 48 percent of respondents only had one confidant compared to a similar study 25 years ago, when people said they had about three people they could confide in.
Social media can nurture cowardice. It fuels a sense of bravado and gives us false courage to say things online we would never have the guts to say in person. It also provides an all-too-convenient means of hiding behind playing "pretend" and avoiding harsh realities in our lives. During times we most need to be courageous, social media makes it so easy to be a coward. In fact, as you read this now, millions of people are "connecting" and socializing with people they may never meet in person, all while they fail to make eye contact, much less engage in conversation, with people only a few steps away, or sitting right beside them. The former are "safe" and enable us to show only as much as we want. On the other hand, those right around us make us feel vulnerable, leaving us nowhere to hide -- without any means to "auto-enhance" the image we want them to see.
As technology infiltrates our lives we must be more and more deliberate about not losing touch with the people right around us. We must be intentional about turning off our machines and making ourselves available for those people immediately around us -- bravely embracing the awkwardness and imperfection of genuine relationships with real people. Truly meaningful connection demands a degree of vulnerability -- laying down the digital designer masks we can too easily hide behind and revealing who we really are and what is really going on in our less-than-perfect, and sometimes outright messy, lives.
For the record, Facebook, Twitter, and the like do NOT make us lonely. We make ourselves lonely. Likewise, you get to decide how you'll use your devices, not the other way around. As technology reshapes our lives, we must rethink what we must do to create and maintain the rewarding relationships we want. We cannot become dependent on our online network to do things it simply cannot do -- which includes replacing the human element in any relationship.
Only when we consciously decide to turn off our devices and, embracing our fear of rejection or discomfort, tune in to the people around us can we create the gloriously imperfect but deeply satisfying relationships we all crave and need to feel whole. Doing that takes courage. Then again, what worthwhile endeavor doesn't?