Is social media degrading our ability to interact with each other on a face-to-face basis?
Like most questions-as-headlines, the answer is almost certainly no. Yet the perception that the quality of ‘real life’ social interactions has gone down as a result of social media is prevalent, and often split down generational lines. It is another weapon in an inter-generational war, in which millennials are incapable of simply talking to people, whilst GenX just doesn’t understand technology.
The belief that the latest generation is feckless, stupid, lazy or otherwise incapable is not new. Societies going back thousands of years have been complaining about their useless kids. If every preceding generation was right that the subsequent one was a serious downgrade, then we would not have made it this far without collectively getting eaten by things with big teeth or dying of exposure because building houses seemed just a little too much like effort. The idea that things were better in the ‘good old days’ is a common fallacy which results from looking back on the past with rose tinted spectacles, skimming over the bad bits and comparing today’s world unfavourably with the past. But it is more a reflection of how older generations always see younger generations, rather than a measurable reduction in quality. Millennials very much tend to be blamed for the downfall of society resulting from having access to Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and everything else, yet criticisms of millennials tend to be rife with inconsistencies from their work habits (do they expect too much responsibility, or want none at all?) to their social lives (they can’t hold down relationships, or is it that they just want hook-ups?).
Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more Corrupt.
– Horace, circa 20 BC
Roman poet Horace, hating on the last BC gen.
But perhaps this time it really is different? And perhaps it is not a generational thing after all, but something that happens because of everyone’s reliance of social media. After all, in line with Moore’s Law technology is still progressing at an exponential rate, and social media is a relatively new phenomenon which is having a profound impact on the way we – no matter what generation – communicate. Why does online dating exist, when people can alway meet at a bar or club? Why do people hold meetings online when offices have done just fine for decades? Why replace a phone call with your family to friending them on Facebook? Has social media rendered us incapable or unwilling to engage in real life interaction?
The answer is, of course, no.
It is simply a matter of availability and convenience. It is far more convenient, time- and money-saving to do a teleconference in your own home than to commute 30 miles into the office. It is hard to find the time to catch up with family and old friends – each one of us has our own busy lives, so even finding the time for a phone call can be difficult, let alone a get-together. Keeping up on Facebook at least allows us to interact with those we care about but cannot see very often. And meaningful friendships and relationships can be made online, where you can exchange interests, play games and even watch movies with someone who might be in another country. If you’ve never felt the inclination to go to a club, then someone you meet at a club is probably not going to be suitable for you – why not form relationships doing things you enjoy online?
So, social media is not a problem unique to millennials, nor is it a poor replacement for real-life interaction – rather a place where meaningful relationships can be born and maintained conveniently. But does it actually harm our ability to communicate when we do meet in real life? I would argue not. Watching two people on a date who are playing with their phone the entire time does not tell me that there is a problem with social media addiction, but a problem with their relationship – or perhaps they simply aren’t suited to each other. A teenager who won’t get off his phone during dinner is one who will find a way to be distracted whether the phone is confiscated or not. (And people who deplore the fact that we can no longer talk to each other on public transport entirely baffle me. It has never been normal to talk to strangers on public transport. Welcome to the world of ‘nonsocial transient behaviour’). This leaves us with the conclusion that whilst social media does certainly affect our real-life social interactions, it is not as simple as saying that effect is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it’s simply different.