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Get Connected: Real-World Relationships in the Digital Age

For all of the convenience of the modern world, from GPS systems to smartphones, interpersonal relationships seem to be getting more difficult to negotiate in the digital age. It may seem counter intuitive that in a time where we are more connected to those in our social networks more often than at any other point in history, so many people feel lonely and detached from one another.   

In this post, I will look at some of the factors causing people to feel a sense of depression and disconnectedness in this hyper-connected culture, as well as some simple ways to mitigate the issues that arise as a result of the overwhelming technology-focus in modern relationships.

The Link Between Social Media and Depressed Mood
This is a topic that comes up often. Several factors may contribute to the negative emotional consequences and even depression that correspond with social media use.  An obvious cause of depressed mood resulting from social media use is bullying or other negative online experiences. It is estimated that about 50% of adolescents have been bullied online and about 80% report having had negative experiences.  Research conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found a correlation between time spent using social media and depression. Another well-researched cause of negative mood is the tendency of people to compare their lives to the highly curated lives of friends and acquaintances. The resulting jealousy and sense of inadequacy can cause a great deal of suffering. This can translate into bitterness and emotional aggression towards people in real life resulting from online interactions. 

The Communication Gap with Texting and Instant Messaging
Ever found that what you were trying to text to someone was completely lost in translation? If you are like me, you have had conversations in which both parties later pulled out phones and compared in an attempt to clarify some mistyped or poorly punctuated statement that caused a disagreement or mishap of some kind.  Texting can be a wonderful way of quickly communicating, but it can also be problematic when you attempt to translate more complex communication with its limited functionality.   

Virtual Spaces
Social media makes us feel as if we are participants in the lives of loved ones and old friends as we watch their children's birthday parties and vicariously enjoy images of weddings and new homes, but this digital participation lacks the emotional impact of non-virtual interaction. In a real-life friendship, there are conversations and disagreements. It is through that type of dialog that young people are socialized and adults maintain critical skills like emotional intelligence and empathy. It is through real-world interactions that our society stays intact as people learn to navigate challenge and conflict and come to a consensus with others. While it is wonderful to stay aware of the lives of those we love through social media, without true contact, we are merely consumers of their life experiences.

Other concerning issues have arisen as a result of the heavy of social media use currently being observed in culture, such as the inability of many digital natives (generations raised with access to digital technology) to interact in a non-digital environment. In addition, there has been a lot of research on the way screen time, the predominance of structured (adult-supervised activities over child-driven activities), and digital communication are degrading conflict resolution skills in emerging generations.

Friendship in the real world.
After all the talk about the negative impacts of modern technology and social media, you may be wondering about positive use. It is important to remember that these communication platforms exist because they give us the ability to quickly and easily share a memory with a former college roommate that we have not seen in awhile, or reach out to family members across the country while planning a reunion. These platforms did not rise to unprecedented levels of popularity they now boast by being the cause of depression and negativity. We use social media to stay connected. It can be an asset to our lives if used properly.

How can you have more genuine friendships while still enjoying the convenience of digital life? Social media platforms, like smartphones and televisions, are a communication tool. There is nothing inherently wrong with using social media. Still, it's important to remember that communication is best when it goes both ways. To make social an ally to your relationships, rather than a hindrance, I have a few suggestions:

Think about what you really want to get out of your social media use
Lots of people get on social media to kill time but never really take the time to think about why they chose to spend part of each day using it. I suggest taking a little time to think about the ways social benefits you and the ways it may be detrimental and create an action plan for yourself. If you waste time using Pinterest on your phone while you should be doing something productive, consider removing the app and using only when you are sitting at your computer. If looking at celebrity gossip makes you feel bad, make a deal with yourself to stop clicking. Be aware of the pleasures and pitfalls and let that awareness govern your choices.  

Have conversations with people rather than just existing as an observer
This is key to positive social media use. When you are feeling a little too much like an online stalker or voyeur – take the time to instant message an old friend or send that thank you email to your aunt.  It is vitally important to have healthy real-world relationships with people you love and trust. These form the basis for your understanding the world and are the primary areas in which you practice conflict resolution and connectedness. Interacting online with people you have consistent non-virtual contact with can be a great deal of fun!

Set limits
Limit the amount of time you spend on social media each day. Set limits on the number of social media platforms you participate on (research has shown that the more social networks people are involved in, the bluer they feel). Set limits on who you interact with (if someone habitually makes you angry, stop looking). This may sound a bit extreme, but restrictions can be really healthy when it comes to social media use. I have clients who have chosen to remove all social apps from their phones or look exclusively at content that improves their lives. This type of thoughtful consumption can go a long way toward making social a positive factor in your life.

New technology definitely impacts the way we relate to one another in this day and age. Being more aware of the way digital interactions make you feel can help you have healthier relationships, online and off.

Struggling to find balance and navigate relationships in the digital world? I am available to help! Formerly on staff at the Tulane Student & Health Center of Psychiatry, helping emerging adults uncover the best path to success is my passion, I am a professional psychotherapist and I specialize in academic, success, and life coaching. I work primarily with college students and young professionals. I would love to put my expertise as a certified success coach to work for you.

Dr. Eileen Wynne

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