On Social Media and Communication

(Before reading on, know that I already am familiar with the meta-like-irony of saying I dislike social media on social media. That’s actually part of the problem. Social Media is useful.)

I was sitting down at a coffee shop the other day when I peered over the edge of my book to spot a young couple. Being the people watcher and lover of human interaction that I am, I was intrigued. They seemed to be on one of those awkward-but-adorable first lunch kinda dates. But something was not so adorable. As the man pulled out the chair for his date, she promptly sat down and, before a word of thanks could leave her lips, she pulled out her cellphone and began texting. From what I could tell while also trying to avoid creeper status, that cellphone never left her hand. In order to avoid awkwardness in silence, the guy eventually did the same thing and the smile he held from cheek to cheek slowly dimmed away into emptiness.

We’ve seen this before. Many of us have been guilty of it ourselves…. numbing our minds in these false connections. This isn’t to say that social networking is not fantastic for maintaining connections, because it is. It absolutely is. But sometimes I think it can become a crutch to avoid our own feelings, especially when we look into the screens of our devices while there are eyes and lips and real flesh and blood sitting in front of us. We’re so busy trying to tweet something that our eyes glaze over and we reply to those physically interacting with us in nothing but mindless nods to pretend that we are paying attention. We’re too busy posting pictures of music festivals to actually feel the emotion behind live music. We’re too invested in what other people are saying in virtual space that we don’t pay attention to what they are saying to our faces. We’re scared to sit in our own minds in silence for a little while, which admittedly can be a scary (but productive) thing. Using social media as an escape is becoming addictive, and that’s a scary thing. Why?

Because of this thing called empathy.

Our brains aren’t wired to develop strong connections through words over cyberspace, despite the fact that a live person is sitting on the other side. We lose perspective. We don’t see how people react to things. There is no building in an understanding of how other people work.

The thought that social media could possibly be harming our ability to have strong human connections is not novel, but I’m fascinated by the coming generation that is growing up completely surrounded by it. I don’t know if I should say that I was lucky enough to grow up in a time with no smart phones or social media (what up pagers?), but I do think it has allowed me to see both sides of things.

Out of curiosity, one day I walked into my Freshman Composition class that I teach and asked them if they believed social media was helping or harming humanity’s capacity for connection and emotion. I thought every last one of my 60 kids would say it was helpful, but to my astonishment literally every student said they believed it was harming it. Perhaps there is hope. I want social media to work as a catalyst for human connection, not a hindrance.

This also isn’t to say that everyone uses social media in this way. My parents, for example, have mastered the art of stalking their children. My mom was just telling me to go to the chiropractor and not run or ride horses for a few days… and then she immediately got off Facebook and went back to her day. Funny how the people I poked fun at for learning how to use Facebook us it more effectively than I do, for it’s purpose. Rather this is me just yelling at myself… and perhaps a little bit at all of the people who don’t seem aware of what they are doing.

Girl on that date, even if you don’t like that guy you were with, there is still a lot you can learn from connecting with him. If anything, you learn that he’s not your type. But he probably deserves far more than sideways glances and half-minded nods, as you probably don’t deserve those either.

With this all said, this is why I am making myself take a break. Like my previous post said, I need to concentrate on life right now. On what I’m doing when I graduate and on what’s happening around me right now. I will still be on Twitter and other forms of media to keep in touch with friends in far-off places and keep up with my writing, but I certainly plan to put my phone away more often, and to listen to my own thoughts a little bit more.

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