“Man vs. Machine:” Social Media begets Social Anxiety

Recently, I was at a restaurant observing what looked like a group date of early twenty-something young adults. Three males and three females were all sitting at a round table staring at their respective phones, seemingly having a good time. As an outsider I could view this one of two ways. Either they are all looking at the same video or picture and sharing common appreciation for it? Or, they are all admiring different phone features in an effort to avoid the awkwardness of engaging in conversation. Regardless, the extent of human interaction in that moment was questionable. The power technology can have over the social experience can create social anxiety, foster unrealistic expectations, and act as a substitute for “traditional” human communication. I will never know exactly what those individuals were experiencing, but it got me thinking about the relationship between social anxiety and social media. This link would not have existed twenty years ago. Why does it occur so readily today?

“Social (Media) Status:”

I argue that the concept of “social status” has shifted to focus on individuals’ physical appearances, number of “friends,” “followers,” or “connections” they have on social media sites, or how many likes they get from posts. At the same time that the definition of social status is being redefined as “social media status,” the rise of social anxiety is becoming paramount in the field of mental health. Often characterized by intense fear or worry about social situations, feelings of self-consciousness or embarrassment around others, social anxiety seems to be a big part of everyday experiences with the increased presence in social media. Although the relationship between these variables is statistically positive, is it “positive” for relationships? While Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. have been intended to connect individuals across the world based on similarities, stories, or pictures, I also find it to  have a disconnecting and socially deleterious effect.

Social Anxiety in Relationships:

Social anxiety is often experienced due to repeatedly being confronted with a lack of emotional connection or embarrassment in social situations in one way or another. As a learned experience, anxiety can be undergirded in feelings of low self-esteem or high self-expectations. Individuals who experience disconnection in social encounters often take it personally, thinking that there is something wrong with them, which can perpetuate social anxiety.

What role does social media play in social anxiety? Well, often times social anxiety from technology can thwart intimacy in relationships, too. Some of my clients have described how they feel as if they have to fight the phone or computer for their partners’ attention. Instead of having a nice dinner, playing a board game, or watching the same TV show together, their partners are focused on checking their newsfeed, tweeting, or playing a videogame. How about that moment when you get a text or phone call during sex? – Talk about destroying the mood!

While I understand that these phone functions can be used to disengage and decompress after a long and tiring day, it seems to take away from cultivating emotional connection and relational intimacy. This phenomenon gives technology a lot of power, making the idea of “man vs. machine” that much more salient, and the “machine” triumphant. Do we really want our relationships to be run by machines? How can we turn the machines off?

Bridging the “Connection Gap:”

It appears that social media provides a way for individuals to avoid interacting with others on a human level and might be inadvertently implying to some people that they are not worth getting to know when it is used in social situations. I don’t know about you, but this would create anxiety for me! Modeled from some wise individuals in my life, I have resolved to enact a “no phone meal” policy. This means that no phones are present at the dining table, no texts or phone calls taken, during the time that a meal is eaten, allowing for meaningful conversation to be cultivated and intimacy nourished. Essentially, the idea is to go back to pre-cyber-age when technological devices were not omnipresent. I find that feeling emotional connection with my loved ones becomes more natural when human, not machine, interaction is involved.

What do you think about this dramatic shift in the way “connection” of social media is really a facade? Do you experience technology defying its intended purpose of connecting individuals in meaningful ways? If so, what can we do about it?

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