By Amber Ingram
Face-to-face communication among members of American society has been drastically impacted by the use of the internet and social media, with both falling under the larger term known as digital communication. Society is immersed in a digital world, diminishing the values of interpersonal relationships. The use of devices and technology allow people to continue to connect digitally while decreasing our face-to-face interactions. This decline in face-to-face interaction has increased from one technological advancement to another. Today, researchers estimate that “more than half of American households are connected to the internet” (Nie 2002), and “95% now own a cellphone of some kind” (Pew Research Center 2017). The dramatic use of digital communication has led many to question the quality of our interpersonal relationships. However, the use of digital communication, such as social media, may be the way to improve face-to-face interaction. Social media platforms should be re-envisioned to encourage face-to-face communication, leading to enhanced interpersonal relationships by modifying human behavior.
Interpersonal relationships that develop through face-to-face communication produce more positive outcomes than ones that develop over the internet
While it is impossible to deny how important these platforms have become, Americans should find a balance between online interactions and face-to-face communication. Researchers disagree over the impact social media is having on our society. Some, like Sherry Turkle, believe that digital communication gives society an “out,” allowing us to have relationships without the demand of intimacy. Digital communication allows people to connect without being burdened by the expectations of the person on the other end of the conversation (Turkle 2011). However, other researchers, like Nancy Baym, believe that digital technology does the complete opposite and strengthens relationships. Through her research, Baym has found that the more people interact through devices, the more they communicate face-to-face (Adler 2013). Most researchers, however, have found that interpersonal relationships that develop through face-to-face communication produce more positive outcomes than ones that develop over the internet (Sprecher and Hampton 2016). Physical face-to-face communication allows people to have thoughtful conversations while empathizing with the other person, which ultimately creates values in the relationship. This interaction is key when developing interpersonal relationships.
Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is concerned that society’s use of social media, email, and texting do not give people enough face-to-face interaction and that the new generation will be accustomed to a very surface level experience of the world (Siegel 2014). He says, “It is a two-way street. The brain created social media and social media shapes the brain” (Siegel, 2014). His research on the brain shows that the right hemisphere of the brain works the body itself and therefore creates our emotions. This side is also linked to nonverbal signals that happen during a face-to-face conversation. Social media, email, and texting are forms of verbal cues, or “text with language.” This form of verbal cues causes the left hemisphere of the brain to be triggered. The left hemisphere deals more with logistics, which leads to people being concerned about whether or not someone cares if a person likes their social media post (Siegel 2014). Other researchers agree that nonverbal cues are key when it comes to the difference between digital communication and face-to-face communication. When in a face-to-face conversation, you can share eye contact, hear tone of voice, see a person’s posture and gestures, and recognize the timing of what they do and say. These factors play an important role in effective communication and help to synchronize your brain with others.
When in a face-to-face conversation, you can share eye contact, hear tone of voice, see a person’s posture and gestures, and recognize the timing of what they do and say
Since digital communication and face-to-face communication share some common elements, social media can be used to improve the quality of interpersonal relationships. The degree to which people can communicate over a digital platform rests on the level of connectivity allowed through that platform (Sprecher and Hampton 2016). There are platforms now that allow people to connect digitally in a way that feels like a face-to-face setting through the screen of a computer or other device, such as Skype. Research suggests that “Skype, given its ability for synchronous communication, can mitigate the effects of partner idealization that can occur over CMC (computer-mediated communication); this type of communication can give interaction partners more realistic impressions of each other’s traits and overall character” (Sprecher and Hampton 2016). The Sprecher and Hampton study shows that participants involved in either digitally face-to-face communication or personal face-to-face communication did have a better feeling of connectedness than those using other forms of communication (such as email and texting) (2016). However, the problem with the digital face-to-face setting is that the development of an interpersonal relationship lacks in quality compared to those that spend more time communicating face-to-face in a physical setting.
Many applications promote meeting new people in person. For example, the app Meetup was created with the intention of “bring[ing] people together in thousands of cities to do more of what they want to do in life” (Meetup). Currently Meetup has 30.3 million members and 272,203 Meetup groups in 182 countries. While Meetup is a great way to get connected to others by using social media, it does not advocate for in-person face-to-face communication once you have connected with a group. The same goes for the app SupperClub, which was designed to bring people together over food. While these social media apps and others serve to improve people’s social lives, they do not guarantee meaningful face-to-face communication will take place and do not facilitate meaningful conversation.
According to Nie and colleagues, the internet is not at fault for how relationships have been transformed in society today. The internet is part of years of technological advances that have had the “unintended consequence of emotionally reducing the number and meaningfulness of emotionally gratifying face-to-face human interaction” (2002). What is diminishing face-to-face communication in interpersonal relationships is the way the internet is being utilized and for what length of time. Moving forward, there is potential for future research to develop a solution that advocates for face-to-face communication with apps. Internet use that displaces face-to-face communication only continues to grow. Societies need to have an open mind and use these new technologies in social media to their advantage. Ironically, the solution to this problem may be to utilize the very platforms that threaten face-to-face communication. However, as social media is a highly questionable set back to our society, it is important to realize the potential it could have when sustaining face-to-face communication. Therefore, the interfaces of these platforms should be redesigned to benefit our interpersonal relationships by implementing the importance of face-to-face communication that will then evolve into our in-person communication.
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