Column: The negative externalities of social media

A significant tradeoff between our digital and physical lives has been a result of the advances in technology, and some have digital identities so prevalent that they almost come second to personal interaction and relationships. (Jason A. Howie/Flickr)

When you’re walking down the street, how many people do you see looking at a phone? At a restaurant, how many families, couples and friends are ignoring each other’s presence and instead focusing their time and energy on a screen?

This new age of creative ideas and innovation has brought an addiction to the platforms that administer those ideas. A significant tradeoff between our digital and physical lives has been a result of the advances in technology, and some have digital identities so prevalent that they almost come second to personal interaction and relationships. 

With advances in mobile devices came social media. The most well known applications that come to mind when thinking of what young people are addicted to are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. These apps are a great way to stay in touch with friends, associate with a community and to learn what is happening in the world. To this extent, smartphones are practical and easy – we have unlimited information just waiting for us in our pockets. 

The problem is people in our generation have taken smartphones to the next level. Whether or not we are willing to recognize it, smartphones are slowly but surely destroying natural human relationships and interactions. It isn’t their fault – they are inanimate – but the obsession with wanting to know what everyone is doing and how people observe us online is crushing human spirit.

Social media addiction cannot be fixed with medicine. Preventing it is a task of the current and future generations. Only when people realize they are missing out on truly living to the fullest can the constant craving to check our news feeds and other’s Snapchat stories stop. 

In 2014, UCLA scientists did a psychological study on children’s social skills and whether they are declining due to usage of digital media in an educational setting. It was found that sixth graders who went five days without looking at any type of digital screen did significantly better at reading human facial expressions and emotions than sixth graders from the same school who (with no change in habit) spent hours each day looking at an electronic device. Several elementary and secondary schools require students now to use iPads for educational purposes.

Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA, looked at the costs of digital media in education and found that “decreased sensitivity to emotional cues – losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people – is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.” 

These findings are also evident in a unique study performed by CNN this month. In “Being 13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” child development experts partnered with CNN and studied social media usage of more than 200 eighth graders across the country. Participants allowed their social media feeds to be analyzed by experts and gave the chance to see why an addiction is able to exist.

The study’s co-author, child clinical psychologist Marion Underwood, said, “I think they’re addicted to the peer connection and affirmation they’re able to get via social media. ... To know what each other are doing, where they stand, to know how many people like what they posted ... that I think is highly addictive.”

For young teens, the CNN study discovered that many are anxious to see what is happening on their phones in order to monitor their popularity status and defend themselves if someone challenges it. For adults, this might not exactly be the case, but it still has to do with keeping up to date on everyone else’s life events.

An American photographer named Eric Pickersgill recently completed a project where he removed smartphones and digital devices from portraits of everyday life, and the photographs are astonishing. His series is called “Removed” and it shows couples laying side by side but facing away from each other looking at a phantom phone, a mother and young daughter are staring down at their hands, a family eating dinner together all are entranced by the phones that have been taken out of their possession. Pickersgill stated that “this phantom limb is used as a way of signaling business and unapproachability to strangers,” and this is the perfect way to describe it: a phantom limb.

It’s up to our generation and the next to stop the addiction to social media and technology, because we are the last that grew up without it and have had to adapt to its genesis. It is scary to think what human interaction may turn into in 50 years. Will we ever meet people in a physically social setting? Or will it all be digital?


Aly McTague is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyvia.mctague@uconn.edu.