Benign Technology: Thoughts on Social Media

On Monday, October 26, Dr. Jennifer Cline presented research on social media during professional development with our faculty. Later that day she summarized her presentation for parents in our school community. What follows is a brief overview of her remarks as summarized by Headmaster, John Heaton.

Social media are all about us and are here to stay. It’s nearly impossible to box them out, and your children are now “second generation digital natives.”  That is, they were born after 1995 and have not known a world without digital technology.  We benefit from it, but we must also deal with its downsides.  Almost half of this generation, 41%, spend more than three hours a day texting or using social media.

Social media create turbulence for young people because they touch their developing self concept. A child’s self-concept – not to be confused with self esteem – refers to his self-awareness and how he regulates his behaviors or empathizes with and influences others.  Linked to this are social competencies that are both cognitive and affective, i.e., what a child knows about himself and others, and how he feels about himself and others.  Social media are powerful drivers of a student’s self-concept.

Dr. Cline’s research, which was based on extensive work with 56 late adolescent, college students, sought to answer the question, “Why are some young adults able to engage with social media in a way that supplements their face-to-face interactions while others actually prefer social media over face-to-face interactions?” She discovered that while young people overwhelmingly profess to incline toward face-to-face interaction, they find it challenging.  They find that social media provide an easy, convenient way to bypass those challenges. In other words, social media allow them to avoid authentic communication, or to bypass it altogether.  Over time, this can leave them “out of practice” with essential social skills they will need for a lifetime.

Young people confess to use social media because they are powerfully driven to keep in touch and up-to-date. Research, however, revealed more tacit motivations:  they want to ensure social success, exert control over social situations, and ensure their own self-presentation.  Most importantly they wish to manage emotionally charged situations.

This leads to another question: “What is the impact of increased engagement with others through computer-mediated communication, on one’s perception of those persons?” Since social media transactions involve less sharing of physical space and real time, might this change the way we look at others.  The answer is “yes.”  The finding is that computer-mediated communication in unformed young adults actually tends to decrease their awareness of others, leading them to “deindividuate” persons in their social network.

Deindividuation is the loss of self awareness and of individual accountability in a group. (It is the same theory that seeks to explain the violent and impulsive behavior of the individual in large crowds and mobs.) This means that in the virtual reality of social networking they tend not to see others as real persons whom they must address with respect and courtesy, and with whom they must empathize; rather, they are able to think of others and address them in a very one-dimensional manner. When Deindividuation happens, a student may have reduced self-observation and self-evaluation, and a lessened concern with how others evaluate his behavior. This may lead to a weakening of internal inhibitions, so that a he may say something on social media he would never say in person. Moreover, when he is tired of a particular contact, he can simply stop the conversation, edit over it, or simply delete the contact. He can make others go away at will.  When this happens social media has inadvertently obscured the important things in human communication.

As a well-adjusted adult you might find this difficult to believe. What you must remember is that children are developing; they are not fully formed.  The research shows. Dr. Cline’s research shows that social media can arrest normal, healthy development of a student’s social skills and that hours of daily, sustained use of social media can create habits of mind that may tend toward maladjustments after reaching adulthood.  The long-term negative impact is not known, but it is reasonable to predict that the students who are heavy users of social media may be at risk for degraded social competencies, social perspective, lower self-esteem, increased narcissism, and decreased empathy for others.  This creates long-term concern for their ability to form healthy attachments to spouses and children.

More research is clearly necessary in this fluid social phenomenon, but the early indication is that parents should monitor and moderate their children’s use of social media, and encourage strong personal relationships at home and school.