In his viral video, Look Up, Gary Turk emotionally appeals to viewers to unplug from their social media (just as soon as they finish watching the video, of course). Cell phones, online games and social network sites are all depicted as distracting us from intimate human contact and a cause of loneliness.
The video, which has racked up more than 37 million views on YouTube, appears to have struck a chord with many people feeling disillusioned with being constantly connected. But before you get all sentimental and throw away a perfectly good iPhone in a pool of your tears, let’s take a step back for a minute.
Current communication and psychology research paints a much more complicated picture of how these technologies affect our social well-being. A full refutation of all the arguments implied by the Look Up video would be worthy of a dissertation, but inappropriate for the scope of this blog. Instead we’ve picked seven claims to compare against current research.
Claim 1: We are connected to lots of friends on social media, but we don’t really know each other.
Truth: While it’s true enough that we can’t know everybody that we are digitally connected to intimately, we don't think that’s the point. Social technology plays an important role in helping to maintain our strong-tie relationships with people we already know. Social network sites also enhance our weak-tie connections and raise our social capital, which can lead to a number of positive outcomes such as improved health and civic engagement.
Claim 2: We share frivolous bits of ourselves on social media, but leave out anything meaningful.
Truth: This is the classic, nobody-cares-about-what-you-had-for-breakfast complaint. But why should you care? Because what we had for breakfast is valuable, potentially meaningful social information. One status update can be frivolous on its own, but over time, these seemingly insignificant bits of information about what people are doing, what they like and where they are can coalesce into a sense of others’ presence, providing a peripheral but intimate awareness of that person.
What’s more, posting status updates on social media isn’t just valuable for followers, it’s also good for the posters. Experimental evidence suggests that just the act of leaving a status update can make people feel less lonely, presumably because posting reminds us that we are part of a larger network.
Claim 3: The community, companionship and sense of inclusion provided by social media are illusions.
Truth: The community companionship and sense of inclusion provided by social media are real. A recent study found that people who use social network sites to interact with existing friends felt a greater sense of connection to them and reported a greater sense of belonging than those who don’t. Our own research also provides preliminary evidence that simply monitoring other people’s activity on social media can help fulfill basic human needs for belonging.
Claim 4: Online games are socially isolating and not a worthwhile way to spend time.
Truth: Our research suggests that online game players are often stereotyped as being anti-social, reclusive and isolated, but online gaming is actually highly social, requiring players to interact with, coordinate, lead and compete against hundreds of other players in a shared space. In many games, socializing is actually rewarded because player coordination eases the difficulty of in-game tasks. Research also indicates that gaming can support pre-existing relationships and help people develop new relationships.
Claim 5: Kids don’t play outside any more because they are always on their technologies.
Truth: Nobody can deny that digital games can be more fun to play than hopscotch at the park. But is staying indoors to play really so bad? These days, digital games promote exercise and social interaction with others.
But social technology might not have anything to do with kids staying inside. In her new book, It’s Complicated, danah boyd discusses the influence of technology on teens and “tweens.” Her anthropological study suggests that the real culprit behind the empty playgrounds after school has more to do with parent culture than it does teen culture. Over-scheduled and over-protected children don’t have much time for free play outside. In fact, connecting through social media is sometimes the only way kids can connect with their friends outside of teacher and parent supervision these days.
Claim 6: It’s become abnormal to talk to strangers on commuter trains because people are too involved with their personal technologies.
Truth: For those of you who can remember riding a train, bus or elevator when people didn’t have mobile devices, ask yourself how often you remember looking up, making eye contact with strangers and talking to them. The truth is, it’s always been taboo to talk to strangers, and as long as there have been trains, we’ve found things to look at besides other people.
Claim 7: If you look down, you could miss the love of your life.
Truth: Perhaps. But if you don’t also look down at your online dating profile you can also miss the love of your life.
Of course, Look Up didn’t get everything wrong. Never looking up can be both rude and dangerous. Because our technologies develop more quickly than we do, we definitely have some catching up to do on developing social etiquette and public policies that will keep us courteous and safe.
Still, suffice it to say that we think the video stretched the truth about how damaging media use is for our relationships. Turk’s fears are nothing new, though. Virtually every technology innovation has been met with some trepidation about how it will affect our social well being. Even the Walkman was accused of making listeners more narcissistic and detached from other people. But in the long run, it was nothing to be frightened of. We’re willing to bet that your iPhone is probably safe too.