Has Social Media Eroded Meaningful Relationships?

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Social technology has enabled young Americans to be constantly connected, but has it defeated its purpose by eroding their ability to form meaningful personal relationships?

Ninety-seven percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 have access to smartphones, and almost 90 percent of them say they use at least one social media site. The millennial generation, also known as the social generation, is the most digitally connected. On average, they spend more hours texting, calling and using social media on their smartphones than any other group.

Recent research by psychologists and neuroscientists has given insight into why people, in particular adolescents and teenagers, are so hooked on social networking. The reasons are both psychological and biological. Engagement with social media releases Dopamine—the feel-good neurochemical that our brain produces after exercising, or after getting a compliment. It is the driving force behind our motivation to seek for pleasure and it is also the biggest culprit behind gambling behavior. In brain scans, the thrill that digital social interaction gives is comparable to a slot machine payout.

Researchers in a UCLA experiment last year found that a part of the brain’s reward circuitry called the nucleus accumbens becomes especially active when teenagers see large numbers of “likes” on their photos in a social network. It was the first experiment that scanned teenage brains while using social media. The nucleus accumbens is particularly sensitive during adolescence, explaining why pain and pleasure are most intensely felt during teenage years, and why gaining social approval and validation become highly important, whether online or offline. According to Neuroscientist Dar Meshi of the Free University of Berlin, the strength of the nucleus accumbens’ response to positive social feedback could even predict how intensely a person will use social networking sites.

Individualism and independence are traits highly celebrated in our modern society, but human beings are by nature social animals. For as far back as we can trace the origin of our species, we have always lived in tribes. Our most unique characteristic is our ability to cooperate flexibly and effectively on a massive scale. We create and act on collective fictions of religions, nations and money on the same basis that we find it secure to be in groups. As interdependent beings, we rely on our connections with others not just for survival, but for our well-being.

Danah Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, wrote, “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.” Being constantly connected has caused a dependence on the presence of others for validation in the most basic ways, yet many of them have yet to learn that building trust, intimacy and depth in relationships beyond the screen takes time. It also requires the courage to be vulnerable in building genuine relationships. It has become all too easy to resort to the illusion of companionship given by electronic devices, to turn to a smartphone and to exchange the emotional risks that come with interacting with others for a constant supply of chemical rewards. Many teens say they don’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation, that they prefer to communicate over text because actual conversations reveal too much. They become overwhelmed with anxiety over not having control over what they want to say. How did communication, the most fundamental nature of human behavior, suddenly become so complicated?

These phenomena are precisely what makes social media so impactful on millennial culture and so exploitable for modern businesses. A digital marketing agency can use such research for targeted advertising, while politicians leverage such information for political campaigns (Trump and Twitter, for example). The young generation now lives in a “perfectionist culture” where people’s identities are reduced to retouched photos and perfectly-crafted narratives at the expense of their raw and authentic selves–and at the expense of genuine human connection. It is the same culture that Brene Brown, a research professor who studies human connection, blames for the sense of emotional disconnection pervasive among young adults, especially Americans. As a result, “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history.”

In letting a false sense of connection rob young people of their solitude and self-reflection, they rob themselves of their capacity to grow and form genuine and meaningful relationships. Millennials have the most preoccupation with themselves and how they are perceived, but they have yet to explore themselves fully and accept their flaws. They are the most addicted to each other, but they don’t know how to form real relationships. They seek to be constantly connected, but they feel unworthy of human connection. Millennials are perhaps the embodiment of the modern day paradox: they are so connected, yet so disconnected.

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