Does social media help or hinder social skills?

by James Duthie on March 24, 2011

When it comes to social media, I typically cover business and marketing related issues. Yet today I'm going to take a slightly different angle and ponder the impact that social media is having on interpersonal social skills. Facebook has well and truly entrenched itself into the Australian way of life, and in a few short years has drastically changed what it means to 'socialise'. But has it influenced social norms in a positive or negative manner? Has it made us more social creatures, or are we now connecting in a more superficial manner? That's the topic for today.

First, let's have a look at how social media has affected social relationships in a positive manner.

Inclusion via Social Media

Most of my friends are relatively technically savvy, typically as a result of using technology within an office environment. They utilise email heavily. They're comfortable transacting via the Internet. And like most younger Australians, they integrate social media into their daily lives (Facebook in particular). In fact, social media has become a primary tool in the facilitation of their social lives.

My view is that Facebook socialites maximise their level of social inclusion. While wall posts and chat sessions may be relatively superficial forms of social connectivity, they provide low maintenance channels for people to stay in touch with friends they may have otherwise drifted away from (think former work colleagues). Friendships last longer, even if they lack real depth. 

Furthermore, by now Facebook is the preeminent tool for the organisation of informal social events. Email often supports Facebook event invitations, but Facebook has become the default. And the reason is simple – it's the easiest way to do it. Unlike email addresses and phone numbers, Facebook contact details don't change. Just create your page, send your invitations and you're done.

If you're not on Facebook, or if you rarely check it, you're likely to miss event invitations altogether. I can think of two friends in particular who have inadvertently been excluded from social events simply because they missed the invitations on Facebook. And of course, what we're talking about here is at the very minor end of the social inclusion scale.

At the most extreme end, social media can help the most isolated of individuals feel a level of inclusion. The recent case of bullied school kid Casey Heynes is the perfect example. A few weeks ago Casey didn't have a friend in the world (aside from his sister). Today he has a Facebook page with close to 200,000 fans after a video of him standing up to bully went viral. And it's hard not to feel glad that Casey has found a support network, even if it is a virtual one.

So I think we've established that social media can have a positive impact on social relations. But of course, there are some negatives…

Exclusion via Social Media

We've all got friends who are obsessed with Facebook. You know the type… they make multiple postings every day. They check their feed on an hourly basis. But at what point does a Facebook obsession begin to become detrimental to an individual's social behaviour in real life. The scenario presented itself to me a few weeks back whilst having lunch with a few friends. One friend was only slightly more engaged with the actual conversation around the table as they were with a conversation happening within Facebook. Now this didn't bother me, but another one of my friends commented that it was incredibly rude to regularly engage in online conversations (to the exclusions of others) while in a real life social scenario.

Which poses the question of whether social media is eroding away what is believed to be proper social behaviour?

I don't think so personally. I suspect it's merely an evolving social trend. Firstly, we're constantly connected to social media now with our smart phones by our sides. Which means we've got more cause for distraction. We're also increasingly becoming masters of multi-tasking. We listen to iPods while reading a book or the news on the train. We browse the web, chat with friends on Facebook and watch TV at the same time. So is it any surprise that we socialise both virtually and physically at the same time? I don't think so.

In reality I think it's simply a sign of shifting social norms. It wasn't that long ago that it was considered rude to answer a mobile phone on a train. Now, I'd be surprised if less than 40% of people on a peak hour train aren't engaging with their phone in some way. Likewise, I expect barriers between virtual and physical socialising to break down. Facebook have already set the wheels in motion with their Places feature. We're probably not that far away from the day when people at the same venue chat via Facebook as opposed to crossing a crowded room to chat in person. Heck, Gen Y'ers & Z'ers probably already do it.

So that's my take. What do you think? Are we fundamentally a more social society due to the advent of social media? Or is it responsible for the decay of important social norms?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen Frahm March 24, 2011 at 7:35 am

Oh, I have been so waiting for a post like this, thank you James, you must have been reading my mind. I think it comes down to the only social skill that is really important is sensitivity to others communication skills / preferences.  If you are in the company of those who are not highly engaged with their smart phones, put it away. Do think about those who are not FB.
I think SM platforms are fab for the introverted, time poor, distance impacted (me included!). The seemingly superficial likes, comments, create a rhythm that permits connection. But the social skills that matter are empathy and action. Give me the friend who brings me chicken soup when ill, rather than the one who texts / FBs an XOXO…
I might be leaning towards SM encourages a lack of accountability for action, and this is socially disturbing…

Social Norms March 26, 2011 at 8:27 am

I think that it's definitely leading to a decay of social norms.  I have (and i'm sure most other people have too) been in a similar scenario to the one you described where a friend is chatting away on their smart phone instead of participating in our conversation.  I find it very rude and distracting that they are more interested in chatting to some friend who isn't physically there with them than the ones who have made real time for them. 
Are people becoming so restless and socially awkward that they have to distract themselves from their own thoughts rather than actively trying to participate in any type of conversation? 

Business Man March 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I think we loose on our in-person social interactions due to social networking on the Internet. We treat each other with less respect because it is so easy to make new friends online or tell our existing friends to f….. themselves. Everything social on the net is easier. There are things we would never tell a person face to face yet we do not restrain ourselves on Facebook. True, we are in better contact with our friends thanks to social networks. But are these really quality contacts or relations? In my opinion, no.

James Duthie March 27, 2011 at 12:06 am

Interesting perspectives. Thanks for everyone's thoughts. It's interesting to see a bias against social media. I think Jenn hit the nail on the head via in the need to be cognisant of the people you are around. It's no surprise that the person who voiced their concern in my scenario was a bit of a techno-phobe. In many other circles of friends, it simply wouldn't have been a consideration.
I think you had another great point there Jenn regarding the tokenism that social media can foster. I've written about it before in relation to people 'supporting' charities by Liking their campaign or sharing it via social media. It's nothing more than a token gesture in my eyes, and it is visible in personal relation as well. I'm thinking of the person who you don't talk to for 12 months, but posts a happy birthday message on your wall. I suspect you've seen quite a bit of this tokenistic behaviour over the past few weeks given your current scenario Jenn.
But, despite all this, I still lean towards social media being a positive tool for social relations, at least… the ones that really matter.

Terje Sannarnes March 30, 2011 at 11:03 am

I would like to say that social media plays a key role in an online marketing strategy. So, I think that for every entrepreneur, who wants to succeed in doing online business it makes sense to include social media in his/her internet marketing strategy.

Belinda - Marketing Nabbed April 4, 2011 at 10:40 am

I think social media is a huge and growing part of our modern lives. People could have said the same about TV back in the early years sucking people's attention and whole families eating dinner around it eg The Simpsons.
People like to feel connected and a sense of belonging and engagement. That is what social media offers. Marketing through social media can be very lucrative for companies that do it correctly. You can easily target the exact demographic and customer you want to engage with unlike traditional media like a magazine ad that may be glanced over in a page turn and never stared at.
Of course in a face to face social situation it is definitely rude to be on your phone playing Facebook or Twitter. I for one am sick to death of four square check ins. I don't care if someone is buying shampoo at Coles! It is getting to information overload sometimes.

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