Laments over social media are loud and repeated these days. Leaving aside the dangers of political bots and election interference, the potential effects—psychological and physiological—of the digital age on relationships are a major concern. If you are a heavy user of social media or online gaming, “there's someplace you're not,” writes psychologist Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other . “And that someplace you're not is often with your family and friends—sitting around, playing Scrabble face-to-face, taking a walk, watching a movie together the old-fashioned way."
But a recently published study in the journal New Media & Society contradicts that idea. It finds that time on social media does not necessarily equal time that would otherwise be devoted to family and friends. In what seems to be the first experimental test of how people spend time that is freed up by quitting social media, Jeffrey A. Hall , a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, discovered that surfing the Internet, working, cooking and cleaning and child care topped the list of alternative activities. Scrabble and leisurely walks didn’t figure in.
“There’s a belief that when people stop using social media, or stop doing anything they don’t think is a good use of their time, that they’ll finally finish that novel, they’ll actually go out and exercise, or they’re going to make [time for] that significant relationship that they’ve neglected,” Hall says. “My research says that that’s not how people are going to spend their time. Social media [seems to be] a way to avoid things you don’t want to do.”
This isn’t Hall’s first innovative study about time. I previously wrote here about his effort to quantify the number of hours it takes to make a friend. He also has developed a theory about how we communicate in order to bond and feel a sense of belonging. And he has been studying social media for years.
"Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives." - Maya Angelou
Panic over the effects of new technology is nothing new. Socrates bemoaned the new tradition of writing things down for fear it would diminish the power of memory. Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Jefferson both warned that communal relationships would suffer as industrial societies moved from rural to urban life. "Before we hated Smartphones, we hated cities,” write social media researchers Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman . Generations of adults have worried especially about the effect on adolescents of exposure to new forms of media including the radio, comic books, television, video games, and violent media. “Every generation, there’s some new technology that parents think is going to be the downfall of our society,” Ariel Shensa of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh says. “I watched TV constantly as a kid. My kids never watch TV.”
While there are questions that remain unresolved, the conclusion so far on social media use is that its effects are truly mixed. There are some benefits—more connection for many—and serious drawbacks—sleep is clearly suffering and some people who are already at risk of loneliness, depression or anxiety may be worse off. And several researchers have found a "Goldilocks" effect , identifying a sweet spot of use that hovers around one to two hours on weekdays. The effects really do depend on the user. “It depends” is not a terribly satisfying conclusion. But it has the advantage of being accurate—age and mental health status appear to make a difference. “It’s not one finding fits all or one recommendation fits all,” says Shensa.
Musings: How Much Time Do I Have Left?
Hall zeroed in on displacement in an effort to pin down something about which he suspected there were misconceptions. His experiment involved 135 adults (average age 26.4) and lasted for 28 days. Participants were randomly assigned to one of five conditions: abstain from social media use (specifically , Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram) for one week, two weeks, three weeks or four weeks or continue social media use as usual. (The researchers had multiple ways of confirming that people really did log off.) All participants filled out detailed daily time diaries. At the end of every day, they also answered four questions about well-being that required them to rate how positively or negatively they were feeling and whether the day they had just lived could be described as ideal, awful or somewhere in between.
"Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying." - Fran Lebowitz
In addition to revealing how people really spent their time off of social media, there was a second intriguing finding concerning well-being. Increased Internet use and child care were rated neutrally but the other two major displacement activities didn’t improve people’s days. “We found that people who have more hours of the day at work, and who spend more time cooking and cleaning, on average, don’t feel as good every day,” Hall says. “In some ways what that tells us is that social media is displacing other things that are not very pleasant either.”
Perhaps that explains the lure of Facebook when I’m on deadline.
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