Does social networking really make kids lonely? Research on the use of the Internet for social contact and communication reveals that this “social technology” pushes kids farther away from each other in the real world.
How is it possible that the more connected we become in cyberspace, the less close we are to each other in our daily lives? Is this real-life loneliness and sense of alienation an obvious consequence of online social activities?
In her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Sherry Turkle, tackles these questions. Turkle studies computer culture, focusing her work mainly on young people from the age of five through their early twenties. These are the “digital natives” of our culture, those who have grown up “wired to” electronic toys, cell phones and the Internet.
Studying Kids Computer Culture and Social Networking
One of Turkle’s conclusions is that many of us are “insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy.” This is partly a consequence of having been raised among gadgets and technologies that offer electronic rewards, affirmation and even affection. As a result of not feeling secure in the love of others, we seek ways to be in relationships and to protect ourselves from intimacy at the same time.
Social networking allows us to have “friends” and “friendships” that require very little real-life intimacy and emotional risk. It distances us from our feelings as it connects us to others online. As a consequence, says Turkle, “We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
Turkle also studies the ways in which online identities can bring out the worst in us. In looking at teenage use of Facebook and other social networking sites, she finds ample evidence of teens behaving in socially irresponsible ways. Says one sixteen-year-old girl who gives herself “permission to say mean things” online, “You don’t have to say it to a person. You don’t have to see their reaction or anything, and it’s like you’re talking to a computer screen so you don’t see how you’re hurting them. You can say whatever you want, because you’re home and they can’t do anything.”
Social Anxiety and Technological Dependence
Social anxiety and fear over being left out have also increased in young people’s lives as their access to technology has increased. As Turkle puts it, “Anxiety is part of the new connectivity.” Teens are afraid to turn off their social sites in case they are excluded from some online social activity.
Further, as their cell phones follow them everywhere, young people do not learn how to be independent and develop the inner resources needed to navigate issues and distances on their own. Parents and kids generally like to be connected to each other, but that continuous contact can have a price: the absence of developing autonomy in a child, the lack of confidence in being able to take care of oneself, and a fear of being alone.
Other researchers have noted the “Internet paradox” that Turkle describes. One study published in American Psychologist found that greater use of the Internet for social communication is associated with declines in live communication with family members, declines in the size of a person’s social circle, and increases in depression and loneliness.
The theme running through these studies is that technology both shields us from our anxieties and amplifies them. We may even conclude that because technologies shield us, we become more fearful and anxious in real life situations. We feel we have less to risk emotionally when we are online but, at the same time, we struggle more with the hard emotions of our daily lives. The upshot is that social and emotional anxiety can develop as a result of using social media, as can an increasing sense of loneliness even though we “connect” online.
Social Networking and Loneliness — How Parents Can Help
No parent wants their child to suffer as a result of online social activities. But surveys indicate that most parents don’t really know what their kids are doing online. And the catch is, even if those online activities are positive and friendly, children can still end up feeling anxious about their social status and about how accepted they are in their social groups.
Because the developing social mind of a child is complex, it is understandable that many parents may not see the relationship between online activities and the emotional self that is under construction. It may be wise to delay the use of online social media for as long as possible, to curb its use when permitted, and to help kids to fully develop their real-world social selves.
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Do you feel that social networking makes kids more anxious and leads to loneliness? Are you concerned about your child’s use of social media? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.