A few weeks ago, I was sitting around a dinner table with five twentysomething female friends and a seventysomething neighbor we'd invited to dine with us. We'd sunk into one of those heavy, post-dinner conversations, one that involved an exciting exchange of ideas about spirituality, religion, modernism, and books. "You know, when I was your age, we never talked about this stuff," the neighbor said. "It was all catching up and talking about our kids and jobs and what we were up to." "We have Facebook for that now," a friend said. She was right: When I catch up with a friend, we aren't starting from scratch — I already saw her vacation photos on Instagram and noticed her new job on LinkedIn. So instead of asking for the newsreel, we can quickly dive into the substantive stuff, like what she gained from that trip to Marrakesh or how she really feels about her career change. Social media may get a bad rap as an intimacy-killer, but could easy access to the superficial stuff allow us to go deeper when we do have actual face time?
When I catch up with a friend, we aren't starting from scratch — I already saw her vacation photos on Instagram and noticed her new job on LinkedIn.
Sure, there’s some research out there that points to no. A recent study found that people had higher levels of depression and lower levels of relationship satisfaction if their partners checked their phones while they were supposed to be spending quality time together (a.k.a. “phubbing”). And it isn’t just partners who can feel brushed off — a 2014 study suggested that the mere presence of a cell phone or smartphone reduces the quality of IRL convos by diminishing the amount of empathy exchanged between friends. But couldn’t there be people for whom technology builds, rather than destroys, intimacy? I posed the question to Leora Trub, PhD, a psychology professor at Pace University who studies how technology affects relationships. She explained that it all comes down to how you use social media. "There’s some research out there suggesting that, with social media, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," she said. "In other words, people with lots of friends have even more social gains, while those with fewer friends or social skills may experience the opposite." People who are doing well on the social front may benefit not because they lack social skills that allow them to forge deep connections in person, but because their lives are busy, she explained. “When you have no other connection with a good friend who’s living abroad, if you know about their life but don’t talk for two years, when you finally see them, it’s a much more connected experience,” she said. I like checking social media and finding out what my faraway friends are up to and I like sharing snapshots of my own life, knowing that my followers who are friends from grade school, a long-ago trip, or that year I volunteered with an education nonprofit will be able to keep track of me and maybe even “like” my updates. I’m sure there are degrees of narcissism there, but Trub’s research suggests that our social feeds aren’t just vanity projects. When she and her colleagues studied bloggers in 2014, they found that people with an anxious attachment style — those who feel less confident and safe in their relationships — tended to reveal the most about themselves online. Why? Because they got an emotional reward from it. “One person talked about how she has a hard time regulating her affect when talking about intense things,” Trub said. “So in her life, she avoids talking about things that are going to upset her, because she doesn’t like how she sounds. When she’d get into fights with her husband and feel like she was gonna lose it, she’d actively not talk to him about it.” Instead, she’d head to her laptop, blog about it, and get support from commenters. Only then did she feel comfortable enough to go back to her husband and talk through the issue.
A person’s revealing social media post can also open the door for friends and followers to empathize.
“I think there are ways we bounce back and forth between the real world and our technology world that can enhance our experience in the opposite,” Trub said. A person’s revealing social media post can also open the door for friends and followers to empathize. When Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan took to Facebook to announce the birth of their daughter, they used the post as an opportunity to discuss their fertility struggles. The couple’s disclosure encouraged others to respond with their experiences trying to conceive — at least, that’s what I saw on my Facebook feed. Beyond anecdotal accounts, there’s actual research backing up the idea that social networks have the potential to complement in-person interactions and bring people closer. A recent University of Michigan study found that Snapchat has a particular ability to spark “social enjoyment and positive mood,” since it encourages people to communicate spontaneously with friends. Out of all of the forms of communication in the study, Snapchat was ranked second only to face-to-face communication — it’s not just for dick pics, folks. Another recent study found that college-educated people tend to use the internet to reinforce existing IRL relationships. According to Trub, the important thing to remember is that, when it comes to reaping the relationship benefits of social media, "It all comes down to how you use it.” If anyone at my dinner table that night had checked her phone or even just left it on the table, we might not have had such an awesome conversation. But if they hadn’t also updated their Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook accounts in the weeks leading up that meal, we might have devoted precious time to superficial catching up. Instead, we got right to the good stuff.