The impacts of Online Social Networking and Internet Use on Human Communication and Relationships

 

 Kristie Manning

 

 

  

 

 

Abstract

 

     My paper will discuss the impact of internet use, and more specifically, online social networking on human communication and interaction as a whole.  I will define online social networking as Subrahmanyam and Greenfield did in Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships: online utilities that allow users to create profiles (public or private) and form a network of friends; allow users to interact with their friends via public and private means, (and) also allow the posting of user-generated content such as photos and videos. (2008[w1] ).  I find it equally important to give the broader definition of social networking.  Coyle and Vaughn use the Bell Labs Technical Journal to define a social network as “a configuration of people connected to one another thorough interpersonal means” (Coyle, 2008).  It is necessary to point out that the idea of social networking started well before the internet arrived.  People have had the need to be connected interpersonally for thousands of years.  Social networks do not exist so one can update their online profiles, on the contrary, they are an essential part of the well-being of humans in general.  Humans are social beings and need relationships with others in order to survive (2008).  Lastly, Dr. Rummel of the University of Hawaii defines social interaction as “an act in which two or more people mutually participate to and attach meaning to a situation, interpret what others are meaning, and respond accordingly” (Rummel 1976).  This will become important in the first portion of my paper discussing adolescent social interaction. The argument can and has been made that communication is losing its validity due to the obscurity and attraction that we as humans have to the false anonymity of the online world. Computer-mediated-communication (CMC) creates a barrier that is having a serious effect on face to face (f2f) communication.  The effects will be addressed by being divided into two separate categories: peer relations and family relations.  I chose to use an interpretive methodology to complete a textual analysis of research that has been done on the topic of CMC and OSNs (online social networks). To conclude I will attempt to come to determine whether the effects of online social networking are mostly positive or conversely, mostly negative[w2] .

 

   

Peer Relationships and Online Social Networking[w3] 

     Social interaction is such an important part of peer relationships.  The dawning of the current technological age has made it difficult for people, especially young people, to draw the distinction between social interaction and what is becoming commonly called “lurking”.

     For this portion of my paper I will look specifically at adolescent relationships.  I chose to concentrate on this age group because the correlation between their internet use and the effects on their online as well as offline relationships is prominent due to their extensive use of the internet for social purposes.  Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a professor of psychology at California State University Los Angeles, as well as Patricia Greenfield, also a professor of psychology at UCLA , address the multifaceted effects of online social networking (OSN) and computer-mediated communication (CMC) in terms of young people.  They recognize the positive and negative aspects of this type of communication.

     As mentioned before, a negative aspect of OSNs is the false anonymity that individuals get and use to “lurk” throughout online communities.  Lurking is when one anonymously searches online social networks for information about other individuals without their knowledge (Ramirez, 2007).  Although I agree that communication itself is possible with the use of online social networks, this behavior does not coincide with the definition provided in the abstract of “social interaction”.  Social interaction includes mutual participation in which two individuals are attaching meaning to a situation.  Lurking, or searching through someone else’s online photo albums or wall posts, does not include either of these parts of the definition.  Therefore, just because it “takes little skill using social networking sites to publish one’s own life” (Coyle, 2008), does not mean that adolescence, or adults for that matter are participating in one of the necessities of human life: social interaction[w4] 

     On the other hand, if one can benefit from lurking in that it allows for more information to be gathered about another individual before the social interaction takes place, then perhaps lurking is not such a dangerous thing for adolescents with social anxiety. 

     Many researchers are calling OSNs a successful way of relieving social anxiety amongst adolescence (Greenfield, 2008).  Some teens find it difficult to function in a social setting outside of the online realm.  For instance, some individuals may find it easier to blog about their particular opinions about difficult subject areas such as religion or politics, rather than speak about them with peers, whether friends or foes.  It is important to include the observation that adolescence is a challenging part of the human development process.  As discussed by Subrahmanyam and Greenfield, it is a time to take on the task of coming to terms with ones identity as well as autonomy (2008).  Some argue that computer-mediated communication via OSNs gives way to a safe form of self discovery that allows for catharsis in an anonymous or semi-anonymous way[w5] .  The worry here lies in the fact that many people use this type of communication as a substitute for face to face (f2f) interactions.  The dichotomy exists in that although young Billy can type about his troubles to his friends on MySpace or Facebook, he is taking away from the time he once spent having the same conversations in a more socially interactive way.  Additionally, he is not learning how to discuss his ideals in an interactive way.  A study was conducted in 2001-2002 that revealed that the psychological closeness felt by adolescence that participated in online networking is less than in phone and face to face[w6]  interaction (2008).  This is because online networking lacks the interactive aspect[w7] .  There is little to no direct communication.  When direct communication does take place, it is via informal instant messaging.  This type of messaging is not capable of leading to psychological closeness.

     The problem I[w8]  am finding here lies in the fact that psychological comfort is something that develops due to experiences one encounters.  Suppose, for example, a young person spends no time playing football, learning about winning and losing, with his or her friends, no time calling them on the telephone, but rather only communicates with them via online social networking.  That same person is possibly developing his or her autonomy and identity, but is he or she learning anything about intimacy: another facet of human development?  The answer is no, intimacy in the form of developing an understanding of nonverbal cues and the like, is not a priority in OSN’s.  This brings me to Frank Haimen’s second premise which describes symbolic behavior as one of the most fundamental ways in which human beings express and fulfill themselves (Haskins, 2009[w9] ).  This symbolic behavior cannot take place in the online forum.  Emoticons, or symbols made out of semicolons and parenthesis are hardly a replacement for the kinds of real emotions that can be expressed in f2f encounters.        

     Interestingly enough, teens surveyed in 2001 claimed, at a rate of 48%, that the internet itself has helped to improve their friendships (Coyle, 2008). 

     This is dangerous and consequential evidence.  The finding proves that teens are not realizing the importance of face to face[w10]  communication because they are jaded by the significance of the internet in their day to day lives.  As a twenty-two year old, I will quite openly admit that I use the internet as a substitute for face to face communication whenever it is more convenient to do so.  However, I realize the consequences and try whenever possible, not to let the medium replace face to face[w11]  communication.

     A study done in Canada ten years ago discovered that in a similar society to America, users of the internet used it strictly for communication purposes 76% of the time (Pronovost, 2002, 48).  Imagine what that statistic would look like in the United States now, eleven years later.  The researchers also found evidence in support of the idea of a constricted social life in the long term due to internet overuse (2002).

     The authors of Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships present the argument that young people being exposed to racism and hate speech is one of the dangers of OSNs.  I, however, will argue that this is not a negative aspect of online social networking.  On the contrary, adolescence will be exposed to such information and material despite the communication avenue.  Being able to view this information in an online medium, will allow individuals to further explore the lack of validity of the negative messages and therefore end or at least slow down the cycle of hatred.  This relates to Frank Haimen’s sixth premise which addresses the importance of an open marketplace of ideas (Haskins, 2009).  It is only through knowledge and individual discovery about the evils of hatred that is involved with racism and sexism, that one can reach their own individual absolute truth.  Therefore, the hope is that teens will use discovery of negative ideas such as these as a jumping off point to start discussions with parents and adults about the counterproductive nature of hatred.

          Another symptom of using the internet for socializing is the changing definition of “friend” that will likely carry over into the next generation.  For example, a “friend” on an OSN such as Facebook, may be someone that you may never communicate with in the outside of the online forum.  People may have upwards of 300 friends online, but perhaps very little friendly encounters offline.  Additionally, they may never have any sort of real definitional social interaction with their Facebook or MySpace “friends”.  The danger here relates to the fact that young people do not see a problem with this kind of substitution for friends, and therefore, as adults, will allow OSN’s to replace the important human process of developing traditional friendships and even romantic relationships.

     Researchers cannot discount the fact that the actual definition of what a friend is to an adolescent is morphing due to OSNs.  According to Dr. Larry Rosen, author of Me, MySpace, and I, children have a general understanding of what a friend is by the age of four (2007).  The friendships that a child encounters goes through stages: beginning with playing with other children side by side, but not engaging in the same activity, such as playing catch.  Next, children start to discover common interests and spend time engaged in the same activities (Rosen, 2007).  By the teenage years, friendships become a very important part of ones life.  Dr. Rosen explains “Friends become confidants who share a burgeoning need for intimacy, companionship, and self-validation”.  Some researchers suggest that online social networking serves as a “friendship reminder” and helps friends give each other the attention that they need in order to thrive (Coyle, 2008).  Others feel as if the term is being diluted.

     With intimacy, companionship, and self validation being three essential parts of the developmental process, the changing definition of “friend” could have a serious effect on that process.  Take for example the research in which Dr. Rosen interviewed over 2,500 MySpacers.  Dr. Rosen’s research showed that most MySpacers had upwards of 168 friends.  More interestingly yet, over 30% of those individuals have met only 1 in 4 of those friends face to face.  These “friends” spend little to no time engaging in the same activities or gaining intimacy; two of the important aspects of friendships (Rosen, 2007).  Therefore, the individuals meet little to none of the criteria of a real friendship. On MySpace, a friend can be made by the simple click of a button.  A thirteen year old female may “confirm” a friend on MySpace that seems to share similar interests.  The two may have a profile that shows them to be about the same age, or they may even share some friends on the network.  However, consider the fact that with the likelihood of this information being false, one may have no idea whom their “friends” really are.

    Where is the intimacy that helps young people develop and further learn about themselves?  The fact is that on OSNs, the more friends you have, the better.  These, however, are not friends in the traditional definition of another individual that you relate to and can share things with.  If 30% of an individuals friends are complete strangers than the word has become completely diluted.  Some may argue that having all of these friends is good for an adolescence self esteem, which tends to struggle during these formative years.  However, when Dr. Rosen interviewed a particular teen that had 600 friends, he inquired as to how much time the teen spent interacting with these friends each week.  Since she claimed to spend about 3 hours a day on MySpace, it came down to every “friend” getting two minutes of one-on-one interaction (2007).  The young lady promptly pointed out to Dr. Rosen that:

“You are assuming that I am only talking to one at a time.  Some are in groups I belong to so I can talk to them at once and I never have fewer than five IMs [instant messages: an element of OSNs] at a time”

    

     This simple interview that Rosen describes points out the morphing definition of what a friend is to a young person.  Some psychologists take the time to point out how this time being spent on MySpace, whether it be blogging or IMing, does constitute the formation and maintenance of a traditional friendship.  For example, one element of friendship is that the individuals provide informational support to one another.  This can still occur in online friendships.  Information can be relayed to one another by blogging about ideas or sharing links to websites.  Additionally, as the young lady said in her interview with Dr. Rosen, instant messaging is a form of one on one communication that seems adolescence are finding suitable for replacing face to face communication.  This begs the question as to whether or not future generations will even understand what they are missing without face to face social interaction.

     A strong support for the positive effects of OSNs came from Rosen’s research about what teens are actually doing on MySpace.  One interviewee, a 16 year old male whose parents were going through a divorce, explained the positive aspects of “the wall[w12] ”.  The wall is the front page of an OSN, where friends can post comments in response to what your OSN may reflect about you that day.  This particular young man was feeling emotional stress due to the excessive arguing of his parents.  One morning before school he described how he felt in a post on his MySpace page.  When he returned from school ten people had commented on his wall.  They shared information with him about how they dealt with the pain of their own parents splitting up.  The young man said he “felt really supported and it made [him] realize if they got through it, [he] could too.” (Rosen, 2007). 

     The conclusion here must be that OSNs can actually help with the friendship process.  So the traditional definition of friendship is changing.  Perhaps this is not such a bad thing.  The important issue here is that teens feel emotionally supported and can continue to interact with one another and share information.  The internet seems to be encouraging both of these important elements of friendship.     [w13] 

     There is an argument for both positive and negative effects of Online Social Networking in adolescent peer relationships.  Dr. Rosen found that shyer more introverted teens did find it easier to communicate and self disclose online.  What we must keep in mind, however, is that too much dependency on OSNs for social comfort will lead to a society that places less value on social interactions and therefore will alter the way we think and communicate. 

 

Family Relations and Online Social Networking

   Perhaps one will argue that there is in fact an enhancement to peer relationships due to OSNs.  The question still remains as to what that does to the family dynamic.  This brings me to the second portion of my research which discusses the breakdown of family life due to the amount of time family members spend online.  If Billy is spending most of his free time online instead of playing board games or eating a meal with the family, how are those family relations being affected? 

     Greenfield brings into play an extensive four year study done via video.  The study examined “the role of technology in modern family life” (2008).  It took very little time to discover that if an individual was occupied with a computer, they only greeted their father who had just arrived home from work 1/3 of the time (Greenfield, 2008).  The greeting was no more than a simple “hi” that rarely included looking up from the computer. 

     Perhaps this is an appropriate time to bring up how my family dynamic works.  If I did not greet my father when he arrived home when I was growing up, I was given a talking to.  It was not excusable to be blatantly rude and disrespectful to a family member.  The study shows that this courtesy is becoming obsolete.  This type of behavior becoming acceptable in terms of the family dynamic is a slippery slope towards a disrespectful demeanor both inside and outside of the home.  Respect is an issue that is often overlooked despite its relevance in the communication field[w14] .  Once a generation of narcissists enter the world (business world in particular), the lack of respect will be a pitfall of society.

     It could be argued, however, that to think that not saying “hello” when someone walks into a room will ruin a family, is quite extreme.  That is why we must turn to research that proves the correlation presented by scholars such as Gustavo S. Mesch.  In his article entitled “Effects of Internet use on Family Cohesiveness,”  he defines family cohesion as “the emotional bonding that family members have toward one another” (Mesch, 2006).  It is difficult to ignore the connection between the level of emotional support a child receives and the developmental abilities of the child itself.  Take for example feral children.  There complete lack of interaction leaves them without interpersonal communication skills that are developed from that same interaction in which they lack.  The relationship that exists between parent and child, or child and caregiver, cannot be replaced by a computer, or more specifically OSNs. 

    The time displacement hypothesis predicts that time spent on the internet is “at the expense of time that parents and children spend in common activities” (Gustavo, 2006).  Some studies applying this hypothesis have found that teens actually increase their communication within their family when using the internet.  Conversely, adults surveyed in the same study say they do become consumed with the internet and spend less time with family when they are “surfing the web” (2006).  To conclude the discussion about the time displacement theory, it can be safely said that when families are spending more time in front of the computer and participating in online social networking, they are spending less time networking and communicating within the family. 

     Gustavo studied 1,000 internet using families and their cohesiveness, family conflicts, and self esteem within the unit.  He asked teens between the ages of 13-18 that lived with at least one parent some questions about their relationships with their parents.  The anonymous participants were asked to respond to questions using a 4-point Likert scale.  Some examples included:

Regarding Family Cohesiveness: “My parents and I get along” 1=strongly disagree to 4=strongly agree

 

Regarding family conflicts: “Your parents have cursed at or insulted you,”: answered on a similar 4-point scale.”

 

Regarding family time: “How much time do you spend talking to, doing things with, or playing with your family?”

    

     After completion of the study, the most support was found for the time displacement hypothesis (2006).  It was found that frequency of internet use interferes with the time that adolescence spent with their families, and more importantly, the cohesiveness of the family as a whole.  Since the more time a family spends together, the more opportunity they have to build on cohesiveness, it is apparent that family cohesiveness is negatively affected by the “displacement of time” due to too much time spent online. 

     Other researchers report similar findings.  One such researcher is Larry Rosen, author of Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation.  Rosen took a detailed look at what constant connection via OSNs is doing to families and more directly, to parent’s relationships with their children.  Here is a portion of an interview that Rosen had with a parent of a MySpacer.  This is how one mother describes her son and his constant MySpacing:

“…When I call him for dinner he takes forever to come downstairs.  Sometimes I have to yell three or more times and send his sister to get him.  Even then he scarfs down his food and rushes back upstairs.”

 

     Again, we see the time displacement hypothesis being proved.  Young people may need more time for maturation in order to see the importance of coming down the stairs for a family dinner.  That is why guides such as Rosen’s are being created: for parents to take the initiative of prioritizing for their children in order to maintain a cohesive family.      

     Expecting children to follow rules while enforcing those rules when necessary is the best way to keep a balance between a teens online and offline world.  Unfortunately, this authoritative leadership is easier discussed than achieved.  Why is this balance so essential?  To find the answer to this question, Dr. Rosen provides a quote from a mother of a 14 year old female.

“She comes home, rushes through chores, tells me she has no homework and then jumps on MySpace.  I didn’t realize what was going on until she brought home four C’s, a D, and one F on her report card”

    

     Parent’s set boundaries in many different ways and with many different styles.  When Rosen examined how parenting styles affected teens that use MySpace he found some interesting facts.  For instance, parents can maintain the best relationship with their teen that spends too much time on OSNs if they maintain this authoritative leadership style.  Where as there are “clear limits and boundaries… [but] they are mutually agreed upon and infractions are discussed rather than harshly penalized” (Rosen, 2007).      

     Subrahmanyam and Greenfield ask whether or not social networking is causing parent-child relations to be strained and to lead to a loss of control on the part of the parents.  Dr. Twenge, author of Generation Me, would argue that the role of the parent has changed in recent years.  The generation she is referring to (people born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) is one based on a philosophy where “focusing on yourself was not just tolerated but actively encouraged” (2006).  This generation, according to Twenge, is one that consists of a lot of narcissism.  She argues that since young people struggle to care about the world beyond their own, they distance themselves from their family and have no problem with avoiding family to spend time online.  She claims that this is lack of control and it comes from the new desire that parents have to be their children’s friends rather than disciplinarians (Twenge, 2006).  Dr. Twenge would view the fact that the mother interviewed allowed the young girl to rush through chores in order to search MySpace for hours as an obvious sign of lack of parental authoritativeness.  Her advice to parents is to not just be a friend and “automatically side with your child”.  Similar to Dr. Rosen’s theories, Twenge would point out the importance of authoritative leadership that helps the family remain cohesive and come to agreements.  She claims that being a child’s friend and always agreeing with them (or worse accepting D’s and F’s because of the importance of online social networks to the child) is dangerous.  The danger she is referring to comes down to the fact that Mom and Dad will not always be there to solve a child’s problems.  In summation, she is pointing to the importance of children being accountable for their actions that may lead to negative consequences from bad grades to the loss of jobs in the future due to overuse of OSNs. 

     During my interpretive analysis, it was interesting to discover how necessary further research is in this topic.  Evidence points to a relationship between family cohesiveness and the use of OSNs.  However, most scholars agree that further research such as that of Dr. Larry Rosen is essential to the understanding of the correlation between the internet and family communication.

Conclusion[w15] 

     The multiple scholars who assisted me in my analysis seemed to be coming to one general consensus: online social networking is just another form of communication that will continue to evolve and may or may not effect human interaction as a whole. 

     This worries me.  Researchers are overlooking the fact that everything is communication.  The internet has only furthered the validity of the statement “you can not, not communicate.”  Face to face communication and interpersonal relations are becoming less and less important to society as a whole and more unnecessary both in terms of friendships as well as inside the family.  People must teach their children that the internet cannot be a substitute for friendship building in the traditional sense.  Additionally, it cannot replace time spent with people within ones family.  Since it is inside ones family that an individual begins to understand important concepts such as that of acceptance and unconditional love, young people cannot be permitted to MySpace for hours on end as a replacement for dinner with the family. 

     It is impossible to deny that technology has and will continue to change the way we communicate.  However, it is up to us as moral beings to use online social networking to improve communication, as icing on the cake if I may, not as a replacement for time spent enjoying the company of friends and family. 

     It is my prediction that further research on the topic of online social networking and its effects on peer and family relations will indicate a direct correlation between the weakening of such relationships and the extensive use of OSNs.  This may seem like glum news; however, it is the knowledge of such a risk that will lead individuals to consider what they are doing on their free (or not so free) time.  The weakening of human communication within the two areas which I have described is not however inevitable.  It is up to parents and educators alike to help future generations understand that online social networking should remain a supplement to communication and not the only form of social interaction that is valuable.  On the contrary, social interaction, whether online or off, needs to consist of at least two individuals who willingly choose and are aware of the interaction that is taking place.  Things such as lurking which was addressed previously may help one obtain information about another individual.  However, this is not how two people can thrive in a relationship, whether inside or outside of the family unit.

     When people begin to take ownership of their activity in the online world and stop viewing it as a harmless and anonymous social outlet, then we will be able to further understand the positive and negative results of online social networking on peer and family relations.

 

References

 

Coyle, C.L., & Vaughn, H.  (2008).  Social networking: communication revolution or evolution?  Bells Labs technical Journal vol.13, 2.  Retrieved March 28, 2009. 

Gustavo, M.S.  (2006).  Internet effects on family cohesiveness.  American Sociological Association. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from EBSCO database.

Gilles, Pronovost.  (2002).  The Internet and time displacement: a Canadian perspective.  IT & Society, vol. 1, issue 1.  Retrieved March 28, 2009 from http://www.itandsociety.org

Haskins, W. (2009).  [Notes on Haimen’s 6 Premises’].  Unpublished raw data.

Ramirez, A., Shuangyue, Z., McGrew, C., & Lin, Shu-Fang.  (2007).  Relational communication in computer-mediated interaction revisited: a comparison of participant-observer perspectives.  Communications Monographs, vol. 74, 492-516.

Read, B. (2006).  Information technology.  Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 52.  Retrieved March 28, 2009 from Academic Search Premier database.  doi: 10.1177/1080569908330380

Rosen, L. D.  (2007).  Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation.  New York, N.Y.  Palgrave Macmillan. 

Rummel, R.J (1976). Social behavior and interaction. Retrieved 03/01/2008, from University of Hawaii Web site: www.hawaii.edu

Subrahmanyam, K. & Greenfield P.  (2008).  Online communication and adolescent relationships.  The Future of Children vol. 8, 1.  Retrieved March 25, 2009 from Project Muse Scholarly journals online.

Twenge, J.M.  (2006).  Generation Me.  New York, N.Y.  Free Press.

Yankee, S.  (2009).  Social networking in the 21st century.  EventDV.  vol. 22.  Retrieved March 28, 2009 from Academic Search Premier database.

 

 


 [w1]Put the abstract on a separate page.

 [w2]Is this part of the abstract or introduction. I am a little confused by the organizational structure.  If it is the abstract, then you need to cite your thesis and preview in the introductory section.

 [w3]Is this a first level heading? In APA, if it is a first level, then you need to center it and not underline it.

 [w4]Good to cite a definition for a key term.

 [w5]Interesting

 [w6]Need to write this out.

 [w7]Interesting

 [w8]Try to avoid using “I” in a research paper.  I know  that different opinions exists but the norm is not to use “I” in scholarly writing.

 [w9]Why not use the primary source: his book.  I have it!

 [w10]good

 [w11]bad!

 [w12]“the wall.”

 [w13]I have corrected the analysis up to this point.  Use my suggestions to correct the balance of the paper.  So far, you are doing a good job!

 [w14]Good observation

 [w15]Need to center and not underline.