By: Savanna Sturkie | Photography: Brenna Beech | Illustrations: Orlando Pimentel
No one on Earth is further than two minutes away. Physically, sure – someone can be all the way across the planet from you. However, with the introduction of high-speed information and a new social media site popping up at every turn, no one is far. The Internet has globalized the universe, making anything and everything accessible to those who look for it. This includes people, and more interestingly, relationships.
Online connections have allowed people to maintain old relationships, terminate existing ones, and even form new ones entirely through virtual communication. The 21st century has seen the rise and fall of many a social media platform – the most popular and widely used including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It seems that there is a new platform every day for a specific niche. This is taken as far as résumés being shared with potential employers on LinkedIn and entire wedding ceremonies being planned on Pinterest. It is certainly an understatement that social media has completely changed the way people live, communicate and interact with one another, and it has undoubtedly made life easier. But has it made life healthier?
The generation being introduced during the first years of the new millennium, known as Generation Z, is being raised entirely with knowledge of the Internet, mass media and social interaction in online forms. But one has to wonder – is it healthy to grow up in such a world?
Sadie Helton, a fifth-grade teacher in her eighth year of being a professional educator, has taken notice of a growth in number of her young students who participate in social media: “All of them. Seventy-seven students. There may be a handful that don’t.”
Humans rely on social affirmation to feel good about others and themselves, and this becomes exceedingly important around the age of puberty. However, with the growth of accessible technology, the age of introduction to the world of mass media is being lowered. Now, most school-aged children are equipped with all of the most recently updated Apple products, in addition to social media and a need for virtual affirmation from others at a much younger age. The next generation is growing up with it, being raised by it… and this can be extremely dangerous if they are unaware of how to navigate this vast world of information.
B. Lindsay Brown, a member of the Psychology Graduate Program at the University of Georgia, studies industrial and organizational psychology, including identity, stigma and relational demography and well-being. Brown finds that the younger generation may be placed in a situation where they are yet to handle such mass forms of communication. “People are living their whole lives with the Internet,” Brown says. “School-aged kids aren’t really sure how to navigate all that information, how to use it appropriately.” The younger generation’s experience with an entire life built around the Internet can offer insight into the current college student’s situation: while a young-adult individual may not have been raised using Instagram, he or she is being thrust into a universe where all private information is encouraged to be public. People of this age are more aware of how to navigate the Internet and its contents but are also expected and encouraged to participate in it fully.
The fact is, almost everyone who is an active user of the Internet has a Facebook. According to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of online adults are users of Facebook as of September 2014. For college-aged people, aged 18-29, the statistics are even more staggering: 90 percent of individuals in this age group use social networking sites – 67 percent of them participating via mobile device, allowing it to be available always. Social media has become a constant part of daily life. The world is increasingly accessible, and this has entirely affected the way people connect with each other both online and face-to-face.
The rise of online dating has, logically, mirrored the rise of social media platforms. Now, there are even apps like Tinder and OKCupid that “Facebook-stalk” for you, taking you through all the mediocre shortcuts and straight to the point: Do you think this person is attractive? Do you think you would have things in common? Would you want to pursue a relationship with them? Click. Done. Making connections has never been easier.
Brown supports the growth of online connections for the use of support groups to help find others like ourselves. “You are more willing to make a connection online than in-person,” Brown says. “It is a way to connect to other people.” It is clear that people are more willing to make a connection online as it offers a safety barrier for the fear of rejection that comes with face-to-face interaction, along with a sense of anonymity. Although the Internet offers a sense of protection, what is the value of the connection made? In order to create a sincere relationship, vulnerability is required on both sides. While this is easier said than done, it makes for a much stronger and more genuine connection. “People’s social networks are going to be expanding, so you’ll know a lot more people,” Brown says, “but the quality, the depth of how much you know them may be less… social media will help people connect with more people, but at what cost?”
Additionally, the speed at which people make connections has been increased tenfold with the introduction of texting, liking and commenting on posts. Joanna Lamkin, a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of Georgia, studies personality traits. She comments on the super-speed of interaction that has been introduced with the 21st century: Social media “can create that sense of need to communicate so quickly, and it can create this kind of sense of urgency,” she says. “If you’re only communicating via social media, there might be some pieces missing – like trying to accurately convey how you feel. I feel like a lot of that can get lost. If you have this expectation that that is how communication happens, I can see that causing a lot of problems later down the line, professionally or personally.”
While the Age of the Internet has made it far easier to keep up with old friends and establish new connections in places we might not have before, the quality of those relationships must be based in reality. The attention span of the current generation is an incredibly short one, and relationships can be lost as a result. “We have a higher rate of people with ADHD than ever before, and I think it is because we are over-stimulated as a society,” Helton says about society’s need to be constantly preoccupied.
Most college students have multiple social networking accounts, and these accounts greatly aid in the curing of boredom. Walking, riding the bus, waiting in line, during a study break – everyone is plugged in. But if one pauses and looks around, a sea of people is moving with their heads buried into their mobile devices, connected with thousands at a time, but ultimately isolated from one another. Social media had made the importance of affirmation from others increasingly important and easier to achieve, but society has elevated it to the point that it has robbed us of true communication. “I took it off my phone, because I realized every time I was waiting for something I was checking it – not that there’s anything wrong with checking it, I just noticed I was always doing it. It is very addicting,” Brown says.
The health of relationships has always been an important matter, but the way thepopulation forms and maintains them will be a forever-changing topic following the introduction of online interaction. In regards to how social networking can be used in a healthy and positive way (since it is most definitely not going away anytime soon), Lamkin advised setting boundaries for oneself so as not to miss out on the richness of the human experience with real-life interactions: “I think a healthy way to use it is to keep a goal in mind…to make it not the only sphere of our existence so we are not missing out.
As far as health concerns go, there is a saying that everything is okay in moderation. And when it comes to social media, this may be the case. Share a few pictures, text your friends to meet for coffee, share an interesting article on Facebook – these are good things. Social media becomes dangerous when we allow it to substitute for real human experiences. Likes, comments, and other forms of virtual affirmation do not create a good and lovable person, only the representation of one. Real life will always trump the cyber one. The social networking universe will only expand; pools of people will become even more interconnected – we just have to keep the goal of social media in mind: it aids communication – it does not replace it.