Popularization of social media has been an ever-growing phenomenon since the rise of internet communication technology. With the college aged demographic at the forefront of this social frontier, they are the ones most heavily affected. This paper seeks to address the relationship between social media and connectivity and communication in relationships, both online and offline. The paper employs a mixed methods survey distributed to college-aged students that addresses aspects of social media and their impact on relationships. The results found that social media makes relationships online seem superficial, while offline relationships suffer as well because of a general trend of declining mental health and self esteem that seems to be a result of certain aspects of social media. This paper has implications for further research into the effects of social media on relationships and provides a discussion that addresses the need to understand how technology is changing social interactions. Mental health, as well as the impersonality and anonymity that come from communicating through online mediums seem to be some of the most prominent forces affecting relationships.
Modern communication technology is a ubiquitous force that seems to be influencing all aspects of people’s lives around the world, receiving both much praise and criticism. These mixed feelings make it hard to tell if the course of technology is leading us down a path to a more developed society, or stalling growth and causing a social stagnation that makes us dependent on likes and followers. Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Are the criticisms valid enough for us to consider fixing the apparent issue, or are they simply resulting from a fear of change? Apprehension towards new technologies has always been a hindering force in the acceptance of new things. After all, even Socrates had his reservations about the written word, citing that it “leads to forgetfulness, since it encourages one to rely on written characters instead of the memory” (Greene, 1951, p. 23). Perhaps the biggest way that modern media affects society today is through its impact on relationships. Arguably the strongest technological force impacting modern relationships is social media, permeating the lives of most everybody in the younger generations. Social media seems to diminish relationships by negatively impacting mental health and self esteem, and removing cues that are important in relational upkeep and maintaining the idea that the other communicant is a real person.
My main focus for the purposes of this paper is how the relationships of college-aged people are affected. I define this age range between eighteen and twenty-two, though the upper distinction may be blurred a little bit because, for example, graduate students or students who took a gap year before beginning secondary school will be a little older. Because of this, anyone in their early or mid twenties is still of interest. I chose this demographic for multiple reasons. Firstly, because the college demographic is one that is most engaged with social media use. A study from 2010 found that “72% of all college students have a social media profile with 45% of college students using a social media site at least once a day” (Sponcil & Gitimu, 2012, p. 2). This figure is slightly outdated, being eleven years old at the time of this writing, though given the further rise of social media prevalence even since then, it is safe to say that the number would be equal or higher now. One study shows that “social media usage has increased nationally by almost 1000 percent in eight years [as of 2015] for people between 18 and 29” (Griffin, 2015)
Figure 1. Social media usage among the 18-29 demographic. From Social Media Is Changing How College Students Deal With Mental Health, For Better Or Worse by R. Griffin, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/social-media-college-mental-health_n_55ae6649e4b08f57d5d28845
Another reason that this demographic was chosen is because they are the first generation to grow up with social media being a relevant force since their early lives. Facebook began in 2004—an eighteen year old would have only been a year old at this time; certainly young enough to be impacted by it since before they could remember. (While Facebook may be neither the current biggest nor the first major social media, it is a relevant reference point due to its still quite large standing since very near the beginning of social medias) Even a thirty year old would have been thirteen at this time; old enough for it to become popular in their early adolescence, which is when most engagement with social media typically begins. Both Facebook and Instagram for example require that users be at least thirteen years old to create an account. For these reasons, I found the college-aged demographic most fitting.
To supplement this paper with my own research, I have employed a survey asking questions about various aspects of social media and how respondents felt they impacted their relationships. The survey consists of several ten point Likert-type scale questions as well as a few short answer questions. I reached out mostly to students at the University of Washington Tacoma campus and twenty-one respondents answered the survey. While I recognize the fairly small sample size that could have been prevented by posting my survey to social media, I avoided doing so to eliminate possible bias from asking people about social media on social media because people who don’t use it would be left out, and I believe that I have sufficient secondary research to supplement it. The majority of respondents fell between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four, with one thirty-six year-old and one twenty-nine year-old (one respondent did not answer the age question), therefore I contend that my survey results are relevant to the demographic of focus.
Mental Health & Self Esteem
One of the most widely-heard criticisms of social media is its negative impact on mental health. Body image issues, low self esteem, anxiety, and addiction are but some of the most widely attributed faults. But what do these issues really prove about relationships? Well, research shows that mental health and self esteem can have quite an impact. According to Harris and Orth (2019), “the link between people’s social relationships and their level of self-esteem is truly reciprocal in all developmental stages across the life span, reflecting a positive feedback loop between the constructs” (p. 1). In other words, self esteem both determines the quality of connectivity in social relationships, and is determined by the quality and quantity of them. Low self esteem makes it much more difficult to connect with others. If one is unsure about oneself, then they are much less likely to be confident enough to open up and be able to connect on a deeper level.
While it is important to know how mental factors dictate relationships, it is first necessary to understand how exactly social media affects mental health. With a survey of 627 participants, Christensen (2018) found that excessive social media use corresponded with a lower general sense of emotional well-being (p. 33). He mentions how people who show higher dependency on their phones also show higher levels of depression and decreased attention, both factors that can contribute to a decline in the quality of relationships (p. 33). One common effect of depression is a loss of interest in things that one would normally enjoy. In relationships, showing a lack of interest can have the effect of making the other person feel that they are not liked or are not interesting enough. This can be a blow to self esteem which, as spelled out earlier, can further harm relationships. Additionally, decreased attention can lead to distractibility and can again make the other person feel there is a lack of interest. In some ways therefore, social media can affect the emotional health of both parties, regardless of whether or not they are both heavy users.
Christensen (2018) also mentions a study which found that “interaction with online peers contributed to compromising the function of offline relationships and increased the potential for Internet addictions” (p. 32). As I will explore more deeply later in this paper, interacting with people online that are not known offline reduces subtle cues that would make in-person communication much more difficult if not present. Getting used to communicating only through a limited-cues medium makes normal face-to-face communication harder and therefore increases the likelihood that online interactions are sought more and more until they displace in-person interactions. In my survey, only 50% of respondents answered that they use social media more to keep up with people they already know than to meet new people they don’t know in person. This means that a lot of the communication that happens in online relationships stays strictly online and is not supplemented with face-to-face communication. Griffin (2015) quotes Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders director Dr. Anne Marie Albano, saying, “Social media and other technologies can give an individual a false sense of having true relationships, which can get in the way of developing peer support and mentor relationships. In actuality, they never cross over to make an engaging relationship with such people in the real world.” As a result of this, college students are less likely to have tangible relationships and are beginning college with less social experience as teenagers than was true of the past (Griffin, 2015). This all can make it harder to form new real world relationships. Meeting new people and making new connections isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when done online it is important not to replace in-person interactions to avoid running the risk of developing the addictive tendencies that social media seems to draw out of many. Watson (2016) claims that “social media is appealing to its users because it is easy to use, provides users with instant gratification and allows the user to be in total control.” These factors all make addictive personalities have even more trouble with putting their phones down.
Understanding how social media affects mental health is not just important for the sake of understanding relationships, but also for the sake of mental health itself. For many college students, this age is a time of heavy transition and sometimes uncertainty. This type of stress can make them much more susceptible to mental health problems. But additionally, understanding how this trend affects relationships is important because, as we saw earlier, successful relationships do play a role in mental health and self esteem.
Reduction of Cues
Baym (2015) defines social cues as the nuances of communication that “provide further information regarding context, the meanings of messages, and the identities of the people interacting” (p. 9). As she explains, it is the missing cue of a shared location that makes texting the question “where are you?” much more common than asking it in face-to-face interactions. Cues are very important to social interaction. In romantic relationships, physical touch is a cue that is important to many couples. Even simpler than this, slightly changing one’s tone of voice can dramatically alter the meaning of a sentence. To demonstrate this, consider the sentence “I didn’t say he took the money.” Placing the emphasis on each word in the sentence completely changes its meaning. Online mediums have ways of mimicking in-person cues. Italicizing words can take the place of intonation (“I didn’t say he took the money” vs “I didn’t say he took the money”), or emojis to simulate facial expressions or reactions. Sometimes, online mediums can create their own cues in place of ones that are not present.
Reducing cues in an interaction reduces the personality and expressiveness of each participant. When there aren’t enough cues, interaction can feel impersonal and anonymous. This is a problem that can really hinder the connectivity of communicants over an online medium. While the anonymity that many online platforms grant can help people to feel more comfortable opening up honestly and sharing valuable information, the other side of the coin is that many people do not feel that their actions online have any real-world consequences. This can lead them to be ruder, more disrespectful, and less tolerant of others’ views. Even if people don’t act like blatant jerks when they feel they are anonymous, the reduction of cues can make the quality of the relationship feel like it is not as real. A general trend I found from my survey is that the more friends or followers a person has, the smaller percentage of them they perceive to be ‘real’ friends. This is because interacting with such a mass of followers reduces the cues available to be sent to and from each one. Another question asked of the participants was how close they feel in their online relationships compared to offline. They were asked to rate their degree of connectivity on a scale from one to ten, one being that they feel no connection, five being the same as in-person, and ten being significantly more connected. Not surprisingly, the numbers were not very high. The average response was a 3.71, with nobody rating higher than a seven. This confirms that a reduction of cues results in a feeling of lower connectivity.
Figure 2. Connectivity in online relationships
Reduced connectivity is not the only negative side effect of limited social cues in social media however. Another result is the disconnect between communication and the idea that the other communicant is a real person. Without sufficient cues, it is hard to see how somebody else is reacting to one’s messages, and that can lead many people to ignore or forget about others’ emotions. It makes communication feel much more impersonal and inconsequential. One phenomenon that can be attributed to this is ghosting. Ghosting is a phenomenon most present in romantic relationships where one party decides to cut all ties with the other and does not respond to any attempts at contact. Ghosting is so common in fact that the term applied to it is easily recognisable to mostly anyone on the internet. Isaf (2020) mentions a survey which found that only 36% of men and 23% of women had never experienced ghosting before (p. 62). She goes on to explain that “a Huffington Post article attributed the motivation for ghosting to a desire to avoid confrontation, difficult conversations, and hurting someone’s feelings. However, relationship research has shown that in the long run, ghosting often leads to worse confrontations than would have otherwise occurred with an alternative breakup strategy” (Isaf, 2020, p. 61). Many people who turn to ghosting feel that since they are not saying anything to hurt the other person’s feelings, they are mitigating the emotional harm. After all, by blocking them, they do not receive any cues from the other end, so there’s no way to see what harm they have done. In fact, all this does is make the other person feel that they aren’t worth the confrontation. This ends up harming the person on the receiving end all the more while the ghoster escapes unscathed. This is one of the many reasons why trust is very sceptically placed in online situations, especially on dating apps, where romantic relationships are supposed to involve honest communication and trust. When asked how trustworthy online dating profiles are, survey respondents again, not surprisingly, did not tend to rate very high. The average rating for this question was 3.78. Obviously, problems of impersonality severely limit trust in online relationships.
Figure 3. Trust in online dating profiles
Lack of trust is a big issue that can stunt and altogether stop the growth of a relationship. Reduction of social cues in online mediums like social media and dating apps lead to a feeling that either there is no reason to care about the person on the other end, there is no reason for the person on the other end to care, or both. Due to the ever-expanding presence of social media in modern life, it is important to know how to deal with online communication, and that starts with understanding its strengths and its limitations.
From the evidence gathered, it seems that social media is a socially poisonous force. In reality however, it isn’t all negative. While not ideal communication, it presents the opportunity to still be able to connect with people who might otherwise not be seen. After all, being able to talk to family members who live in another country, or a friend from high school who now lives in another state is better than no communication at all. The important point is that it is necessary to understand the limits and drawbacks of the forces that are so ever-present in our lives. Understanding the lack of cues will help to recognize and avoid tendencies that hurt trust and impersonality. Knowing how social media impacts mental health can help make it easier to mitigate harm by taking a different approach, like for example restricting people you follow to only those whom you deem close enough friends or people you would actually like to keep in touch with. When left unchecked, social media can result in some truly ugly effects for mental health, trust, and communication. It is still a very recent development in the course of human history and thus is still being perfected. While at the moment it is far from perfect, tailoring social media platforms to fit specific, healthy communication purposes can drastically increase the quality of connectivity in relationships. Instead of centering apps around how many followers and likes one can get, it might be more beneficial for everybody to focus it around forming deeper connections rather than more numerous shallow ones. Filling one’s world with empty communication and shallow relationships can make it feel both overwhelmingly crowded and desperately lonely at the same time. This may be at least in part the reason why mental health and anxiety are such common problems now. “In the last year, anxiety has superseded depression as the most prevalent mental health disorder across college campuses, according to a study by the American College Health Association” (Griffin, 2015). College students are currently the most affected demographic, and thus it is extremely important to address such an issue.
Perhaps the next step is a study focused around how to turn social media into a positive force, employing a psychological approach to address the issues of mental health and addiction as well as a communications-oriented approach aiming to add cues necessary to making interactions online more genuine. Fixing these issues with social media and in turn helping improve the quality of relationships produced can be a great benefit that is worth striving for.
Baym, N. K. (2015). Personal Connections in the Digital Age (Digital Media and Society) (2nd ed.). Polity.
Christensen, S. P. (2018). Social Media Use and Its Impact on Relationships and Emotions. All Theses and Dissertations, 6927. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/6927
Greene, W. C. (1951). The Spoken and the Written Word. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 60, 23–59. https://doi.org/10.2307/310884
Griffin, R. (2015, July 22). Social Media Is Changing How College Students Deal With Mental Health, For Better Or Worse. HuffPost. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/social-media-college-mental-health_n_5 5ae6649e4b08f57d5d28845
Harris, M. A., & Orth, U. (2020). The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1459–1477. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000265
Isaf, M. (2020). The Role of Social Media in Dating Trends Among Gen Z College Students. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 11(2), 59–68. https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/u ploads/sites/153/2020/12/06-Isaf_EJfinal.pdf
Sponcil, M., & Gitimu, P. (2012). Use of social media by college students: Relationship to communication and self-concept. Journal of Technology Research. Published. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266344276_Use_of_social_media_by_college_students_Relationship_to_communication_and_self-concept
Watson, K. (2016, November 28). How Social Media Addictions Strain Relationships with College Students. Progressions. Retrieved November 10, 2021, from https://progressions.prsa.org/index.php/2016/11/28/how-social-media-addictions-strain-relationships-with-college-students/