Is Social Networking Really Social?

By Larry Rosen, Ph.D.
March 16, 2011



Is Social Networking Really Social?Let’s face it. Everyone is on Facebook. Well, not everyone, but 550 million or one in 12 people worldwide have a Facebook account.

As of late 2010, 61 percent of all online adults are Facebooking, a whopping increase from 35 percent just two years ago. This includes nearly all young adults (86 percent), the majority of teens (71 percent) and even one in four 8- to 12-year-olds. According to the latest research two out of every three 8- to 24-year-olds Facebookers are using it daily. If it were a country, Facebook would be the third largest in the world behind India and China.

Add to this the newest Nielsen statistics showing that teenagers send and receive 3,705 text messages per month (yep, you read that right), followed by 1,707 for 18- to 24-year-olds and 1,178 for preteens and you have a picture of an online youth population spending vast amounts of time “communicating” with other people.

But is this really communication? Well, consider a few recent research results:

  • The majority of teens prefer to contact their friends via text messaging (54 percent) compared to talking to them on the telephone or even seeing them face to face (33 percent).
  • More than one in four Facebook users report they see friends more face to face than they did prior to Facebook compared to one in eight who say they see them less.
  • Finally, 59 percent of Facebook users feel more connected to people than they did BF (before Facebook).

The bottom line is that we are all spending more time being social and much of that involves virtual communication. Is sending a text that says “OK” or “LOL” really communicating? Is posting a comment on someone’s FB wall really communicating? That to me is a very important question since Facebook and text messaging are not going to disappear but are only going to increase over the foreseeable future.

Four years ago – an eternity in cyberspace – my colleagues and I studied adolescent perceptions of MySpace. (Remember that social network? Seems to have faded from our consciousness.) Among other interesting results, we found that those teens who were shy in person felt much less shy on MySpace. In addition, teens felt more honest online than they did in person.

Now that Facebook is here and MySpace is basically a nonentity, we recently completed a study of nearly 2,000 teenagers and adults looking at basic real-world empathy, online empathy and social support. Interestingly, belonging to a social network (read Facebook) is positively correlated with online empathy (but not offline empathy).

In addition, using media with other people such as playing online video games is also positively correlated with online empathy. In contrast, using media in general is actually negatively correlated with real-world empathy. Further, social support is actually correlated more strongly with online empathy than with real-world empathy.

Finally, all three variables – social support, online empathy and real-world empathy – were positively correlated with spending more time with people face to face.

What does this all mean? What it says to me – and to other researchers in this field – is that we are creating a generation of socializers who are connecting nonstop and feeling much better about themselves to boot. This generation of social networkers is finding ways to use these tools to connect to people in their past as well as current friends. Just glance at a teen or young adult’s Facebook wall and you will see the amount of social support that permeates the comments from friends. It is clear that if someone is in need, there are people there to help – at any time of the day or night.

What happens if you don’t allow someone to access their Facebook? Recently a study was done with students from 12 universities around the world asking them to give up all e-mail, texting, Facebook, Twitter and other technological social interactions for 24 hours. This seems like a rather simple act, but the researchers were stunned to discover that after only a short time the students began exhibiting symptom similar to smokers who are asked to give up their cigarettes cold turkey. They fidgeted, reached for their phone only to find it gone, and felt uncomfortable and antsy.

These are striking results and not the first time that a study has shown similar addictive qualities of social networks and other communication tools. I read recently about two experiments to see how people could deal without having certain technologies at their beck and call. Last September, Harrisburg University declared a week without social media on campus while, at the same time, 53 students at a high school in Portland, Ore., went all the way and eliminated all technology from their lives for a week.

So, how did it go? Well, at Harrisburg estimates were that only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the students adhered to the tech communication ban. As late-night television host Jimmy Fallon said during his monologue after news of this technology fast surfaced:

“Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, ‘We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.’ ”

I wonder how many students they had to ask at Lincoln High to get those brave 53. To quote one of the students, “I feel really anxious because I don’t know if I’m missing something important. I keep thinking I can’t wait for this to end because I need to check my e-mail. How many Facebook notifications am I going to have after this?”

Taken as a whole we now have a generation of people of all ages who are communicating electronically and seemingly gaining social support and empathy. The key to all of this is that with most people communicating upward of three to four hours a day electronically, Facebook and text messaging provide instantaneous, always available social support. It is like having your own therapist available 24/7.

How does this trend impact psychologists? It is clear that what goes on in the office is not the only advice and counseling that people are receiving. To me this means that the psychologist must pay attention to social support delivered electronically.

Does this mean that you should “friend” your patients? Of course not. But it does mean that social networking and other forms of electronic communication must be on the table to discuss in the therapy setting. With patients spending so many hours per day getting advice online, it is likely that crises will occur.

When you are dealing with feelings delivered behind a screen – any screen – you are working with disinhibited people who will say anything without regard for the receiver at the other end. It now becomes incumbent upon the psychologist to probe these online experiences to make sure that they are healthy and helping rather than hurting the therapeutic process. Our job has become much more difficult now that are patients are getting Whatever, Whenever, Wherever. This is the new WWW.

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., wrote regularly for The National Psychologist from 1995 through 2008 and continues to contribute periodically as he devotes himself to doing research and writing books. He has two books currently on the market – Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation and Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn. He just signed a contract to write a new book that will discuss how technology has made us all appear to have personality disorders. He can be reached by e-mail at LROSEN@CSUDH.EDU or at his website at www.Me-MySpace-and-I.com.

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