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Are IMing, Twittering, Facebooking, and So On Really Anti-Social?

- March 19, 2009

Yesterday my colleague Henry approvingly posted an overview of David Gibson’s argument that the new social networking media constitute “anti-social capital, ” by which he means ties “whose main consequence is that you spend a lot of time online communicating with people who, like you, have a lot of time to spend socializing online. It’s not hard to foresee why someone without such connections would fair better at school, in the workplace, and in their family relations than someone with them, other things being equal.”

Among the comments that Henry’s post drew was a rather, er, severe one by Sverre:

bq. When are people going to stop looking at Facebook and other social media as a new way to waste time and rather look at it as a new way of communication? Why is time wasted on idle Facebook communication any more damaging to my academic work than time wasted on idle chatter over a cup of cofee at the campus coffee shop?

bq. Social internet media have made social interaction more available even as I sit by my office computer. Distracting chatter and meaningful, academically relevant communication equally much.

bq. Whether or not one likes the term social capital, it appears to me to be a misconception with grumpy old professors that asocial students do better than social active ones. Of the truly brilliant students I know, most of them are also among the socially most active. Most of them area also on Facebook. Just as social interaction can be something other than getting drunk and smoking pot, so can active participation through internet channels be more than a mere waste of time.

bq. I would assume a blogger would be the first to acknowledge this…

I think Sverre is right. Here’s why.

In the hot-off-the-presses issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Peter present an overview of pertinent research (“Social Consequences of the Internet for Adolescents,” v. 18 (February): 1-5), here. They note that when e-mail and chat rooms became popular during the 1990s, several commentators “believed that these technologies would reduce adolescents’ social connectedness and well-being” because they “assumed that (a) the Internet motivates adolescents to form superfical online relationships with strangers that are less beneficial than their real-world relationships and (b) time spent with online strangers occurs at the expense of time spent with existing relationships.” During the 1990s, that interpretation was generally supported by researchers, who found that Internet use wsa negatively related to social connectedness and well-being.

However, much has changed since the 1990s. In the early days, it was difficult “to maintain one’s existing social network on the Internet because the greater part of this network was not yet online …At the time, online contacts were separated from offline contacts. But at present, the vast majority of adolescents in Western countries have access to the Internet. At such high access rates, a negative effect of the Internet on social connectedness is less likely because adolescents have more opportunities to maintian their social network through this medium.”

Moreover, the communication technologies that predominated during the 1990s were typically used for communication between strangers; but IMing, Facebook, and other recent innovations “have been developed that encourage adolescents to communicate with existing friends.” The implication? “Because adolescents now predominantly use the Internet to maintain their existing friendships, the condition for negative effects of the Internet on social connectedness and well-being no longer exists.” Thus, recent research now indicates that “adolescents’ online communication stimulates, rather than reduces, social connectedness and/or well-being.”

Valkenberg and Peter provide a convincing account of how this all occurs at the individual level. The key elements in their explanation are that online communication stimulates self-disclosure, that self-disclosure enhances the quality of relationships, and that high-quality relationships promote well-being.

One especially intriguing finding is that “adolescent boys seem to benefit more from online communication with existing friends than girls do,” because such communication enhances boys’ otherwise-stunted tendency to self-disclose. Apparently it’s easier for boys to talk about “feelings” when they’re not looking one another in the eye.

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