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May/June 2013 Issue

Social Media and Interpersonal Communication
By Maura Keller
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 3 P. 10

Glance around a restaurant and you’ll be hard-pressed to find people who don’t have their heads down using their cell phones to text, Tweet, or update their Facebook statuses—all while sharing a meal with others at their table.

Social media’s effect on our ability to interact and communicate is visible throughout all areas of society, so what does this mean for interpersonal communication? According to Paul Booth, PhD, an assistant professor of media and cinema studies in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, social media certainly affects how we engage with one another across all venues and ages. “There has been a shift in the way we communicate; rather than face-to-face interaction, we’re tending to prefer mediated communication,” he says. “We’d rather e-mail than meet; we’d rather text than talk on the phone.”

According to Booth, studies have shown that people actually are becoming more social and more interactive with others, but the style of that communication has changed so that we’re not meeting face-to-face as often as we used to.

That said, our interactions on social media tend to be weak ties—that is, we don’t feel as personally connected to the people at the other end of our communication as we do when we’re face-to-face. “So while we’re communicating more, we may not necessarily be building relationships as strongly,” Booth says.

Three key issues are surfacing regarding the role social media now plays in people’s communication styles, Booth notes. First, when we communicate through social media, we tend to trust the people on the other end of the communication, so our messages tend to be more open. Second, our social connections are not strengthened as much through social media as they are face-to-face, so we don’t tend to deepen our relationships—they tend to exist in the status quo. Last, we tend to follow and interact with people who agree with our points of view, so we aren’t getting the same diversity of viewpoints as we’ve gotten in the past.

“Certainly, with every new communication technology comes changes in the style and type of interpersonal communication,” Booth says. “Obviously the bigger the influence of the technology, the more changes we see in communication styles.”

Far-Reaching Effects
Nicholas David Bowman, PhD, an assistant professor of communication studies in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University, says actions that trigger a bad online relationship likely are the same ones that trigger a bad relationship in real life—only the modality has changed. “For example, cyberbullying has largely the same antecedents and behavioral, emotional, and affective consequences as does [noncyber] bullying,” Bowman says. “Yet the difference is the ‘more’—that is, social media allows for more contact, more communication, and in a more public manner.”

In a bullying event, often the person being bullied can remove himself or herself from the environment, at least temporarily. For example, a child being bullied at school can escape the playground when he or she goes home each night. “However, cyberbullying is marked by its persistence,” Bowman says. “The bullying messages don’t stay in a particular space, such as a playground, but can follow the child home. If we consider that bullying’s effects on an individual can build over time, then there is a real concern that increasing contact between bullies and their targets in persistent and digital interactions might exacerbate the problem.”

Information Overload
One big concern surrounding social media’s impact is communication overload—learning how to handle and make sense of this “more” information we now have.

As Bowman explains, we’re getting more information about more people than ever before, and we feel a need to process and perhaps even respond to it all. “In fact, there has been some very early recent data suggesting that teens are perhaps pulling away from Facebook because it’s just too much for them to handle,” he says.

Another concern lies in technology addiction, when individuals spend more time with their smartphone than interacting with the people around them, to the detriment of those face-to-face relationships. “It may be the parent checking his or her e-mail during a family dinner or the young college student updating Twitter while on a first date,” Bowman says. “For these people, they likely feel such a strong sense of identity online that they have some difficulty separating their virtual actions from their actual ones.”

With the release of the fifth edition of the DSM, Internet addiction now will be listed as a mental illness marked by emotional shutdown, lack of concentration, and withdrawal symptoms, so we may be closer to diagnosing and understanding socially detrimental human-technology relationships.

“However, many of us caution that Internet addiction might be an inaccurate portrayal,” Bowman says. “After all, if social media is designed to connect people with people, then is it really a human-technology relationship or is it a human-human relationship mediated by technology?”

Protecting Privacy
One potentially negative consequence of social media is a lack of privacy. “Because interpersonal communication is changing, we’re finding ourselves more apt to share on social media the sort of information we might have previously shared privately face-to-face,” Booth says. “We always have to keep in mind that our social networks are searchable—even when privacy settings are set extremely high, it’s always possible to find out personal information.”

Of course, the negativity surrounding social media is countered by positive influences, including the ability to communicate with more people across greater distances and with increased speed. “Your message can be shared and spread farther and faster than at any other time in human history,” Booth says. “We can do a lot of good by spreading positive messages in this way.”

Future of Social Media
Experts agree that clinicians must be aware that people are changing the way they communicate. “We may rely on the weak connections we’re making on social media more than on the strong connections we might have when we’re meeting face-to-face,” Booth says.

What does the future hold for social media and its potential continuous effect on interpersonal communication within society? Bowman believes social media likely will continue to become increasingly integrated into the normal human experience like most of the communication technologies that preceded it. “They will continue to increase the volume of the human communication process, and we will continue to learn how to use them for good and for bad,” he says.

“We must remember that social media is really only a decade old. That’s very young in the history of communication technology,” Booth adds. “It’s been influential, but it hasn’t really settled into a routine yet. As social media becomes more normalized, we’ll stop seeing it as changing things and start seeing it as the way things are. As a society we’ll be OK—we’ve always adjusted to new technology. So whether it’s wearable communication media, such as Google glasses, or more cloud computing, we’ll change and adapt.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.