Before I get into the meat of this post, let me say that while it is directed primarily at kids and youth, the topic is certainly be applicable to adults. I really started thinking about this a while back as part of the research I was doing for the "It's Not Who You Know..." book. There's a body of thought that believes technology, particularly social media, has given us a great boost in finding, building and keeping connections with people. But the reality is that it's a "yes and no" kind of answer. Social media can be a great tool...if used correctly and appropriately. Yet, too often, it's not. And that's when the complications set in. Let's look at a few of the issues:
Amount of time spent: our young people are spending increasing amounts of time on various social media platforms. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report (2010), teens are spending an average of more than 53 linear hours a week using "entertainment media." But, because of their talent for multi-tasking they are actually "using" a lot more time than that. Consider that this is the equivalent of more than a full-time "job!"
Another concern is what they are doing with that time. I'm not going to get into all the details of the really bad stuff like cyberbullying, lurking potential predators, and sexting in this post -- that's a huge can of worms to be opening today. But what I do want to talk about is how this online "social" time is affecting their offline social abilities. Consider:
- Of your many FaceBook/MySpace...pick your platform..."friends," how many people do you actually know? It may be a few dozen...maybe a hundred. But you can't really form "friendships" with thousands of people, now can you? Often someone's popularity is dictated specifically by how many followers they have. If you are a teen, is your self-esteem affected by whether or not you have a large following?
- The paradigm for forming friendships or building relationships on social media is not something that easily translates into the real world. You can't just knock on someone's door, ask if there are any kids who live there, and suddenly become "friends." Yet, this is essentially what a lot of social media connections are based on. You find someone who may have one or more common interests, see if they seem interesting, and ask to be their friend. Now, you may use that as the basis for later developing a friendship, but it's a bit backwards of a model.
- And what happens if you no longer want to BE friends? You click a button and sayonara. Without any real consideration for how it may affect the person you just dropped. Heck, if Hollywood stars are dumping their significant others via text messages, clearly too many people see social media as "what convenience it gives ME," rather than something that is shared between two parties.
- So much about building relationships has to do with things you can't easily replicate on a computer. Conversations for example, are generally held in "real time" -- either face to face or via phone (ok, yes, I know you can have written conversation, too, but stick with me...). There are subtleties at play such as voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language. Skype and other video chat is no substitute for real connections with people. Conversations are meant to be shared communication; how can you be an equal participant in a conversation when someone can just click "off" when they are done "listening" to you?
- Of course, then there's the whole issue of type of content that kids may be sharing online without an understanding or concern about how that may be perceived by others now, much less the potential permanence or long-term impact in the future (for more, see "Beware What You Share")
When you see two young people literally sitting next to each other but resorting to TEXT communication rather than talking face-to-face, you know it's gone way over the edge. I know there's a novelty in being able to do that...I used to echat with a co-worker who was just across the office from me because we could multi-task a "conversation" while we were working on other things. But, that, too, takes its toll; we're so used to multi-tasking that it's hard for us to fully focus on one thing. Don't "friends" deserve our undivided attention?
Yes, technology is taking a toll on our young people's social abilities. When employers #1 complaint of the youth entering the workforce is that they lack the social skills necessary to operate effectively in the job market, we know there's an issue. I mean, heck, there are stories everywhere of job candidates texting other people or responding to emails in the middle of a job interview! How do you suppose these nifty skills in online "communication" are going to impact their future success?
We don't want our children's online life to become more important -- or more "real" -- than their offline life. Technology is a tool and it does enable us to do so many things now that we never even thought possible 10/20/50 years ago. But it is a tool and should never be a substitute for real presence. There's a whole world beyond keyboards and computer screens; we have to help our kids re-discover and value that because, regardless of what they do online, they still have to live and operate in a real, tangible world.