The other night the three of us still at home were talking face-to-face with our son and brother 1,000 miles away for about an hour, for free (well, not counting the cost of our family Internet connection). While enjoying the banter, I was wondering at this ability we had to look into each other's eyes across great distances on computer screens. Only the ability to hug would be better. But having more means and opportunities for casual, fun digital connections certainly doesn't decrease the hug opps.
Our family was using Facebook videochat but could've been in a Google+ "hangout" or on Skype, which I've used a lot for work-related international video conversations at the same "cost." But we also stay in touch via email and cellphone texting, and our kids hang out with their friends in a wider variety of ways, including Xbox Live. [One quick side note: We in the Internet safety field used to talk about "disinhibition" and how a lack of facial expression and body language online could reduce empathy in online communication; that may still be true, but think about how its impact is diminishing as videochat gains ground.]
So how is this socially isolating?
Because of social digital media and devices, the people "we depend on are more accessible today than at any point since we lived in small, village-like settlements," wrote Rutgers University professor Keith Hampton in the New York Times – and maybe more than at any point in history, since we no longer have to be in the same village. Reading the sociologist's commentary reminded me of how lucky I am not to be my parents, who – when I was in college – had to accept a collect call for which I had to negotiate time on my dormitory floor's pay phone once or twice a month. Social media are far from socially isolating, even though plenty of people theorize they're responsible for a reported loss of interest in marriage and family (see USATODAY).
So where's the evidence to the contrary? Well, there are multiplying signs that social media are actually improving things. For example, "Core Networks, Social Isolation, and New Media," a study in the journal Information, Communication & Society that Dr. Hampton co-authored, found that not only that social isolation has not increased since 1985, digital technologies have had a positive impact on people's personal networks and their diversity. "Neither living alone nor using social media is socially isolating," he concludes in the New York Times. "Regardless of whether the participants were married or single, those who used social media had more close confidants."
Social media for resilience development?
Another academic study, covered by my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in his blog, looked at why Facebook and other social network services are "so successful." The authors found that it might be because of their "ability to induce positive emotional experiences." The article uses dense scientific language, of course, but you might find this description interesting in light of what science says such experiences can do for us (and our children): "Positive emotions promote discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas and social bonds, which in turn build that individual’s personal resources; ranging from physical and intellectual resources, to social and psychological resources. Importantly, these resources function as reserves that can be drawn on later to improve the odds of successful coping and survival."
That suggests two things about social media to me: 1) that, while of course we know social network sites can be places where social aggression occurs – like school and anywhere else human interaction happens – they're also places where resilience can develop for greater safety and social literacy, and 2) society has weighted its discussion about social media on the negative side. For other evidence on the positive side of the social-media balance, check out Larry's article, and you'll find more in Dr. Hampton's.
Related links & further signs
* From Pew/Internet: "Social networking sites & our lives"
* "How social networks can be protective"
* "A (digital) return to village life?"
* "Cyberbullying and … second chances?"
* "Only sometimes 'along together' in the same room"
* "Survival of the most cooperative?"