My relationship with social media is and remains an ambivalent one. Unlike many of my peers, I did not initially embrace social media, from its beginning stages with AOL instant messenger and proceeding quickly on to MySpace and Facebook. I always regarded different forms of social networking with a certain degree of suspicion, and not merely because of the doomsday speeches given by principals and parents alike. While horror stories of Internet predators did appropriately raise the hair on my arms, my suspicion was and always has been of a more personal variety.
Social media changes the way people communicate. Even as a teenager, I sensed the sacrifice. I realized that it had changed the standards and expectations for relationships, and I was not quite ready, or willing, to make that change.
Working as a National Congregation of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) advisor, I’ve witnessed, firsthand, the rather shocking way in which social media has transformed the way our generation communicates, and the expectations we have for relationships. My job entails working closely with over 150 teenagers, attending weekend retreats, chatting together over Skype, or simply being on call for any number of late night questions or crises. However, being in direct contact with my NCSY teenagers has been a battle. The high school students I work with would much rather just send me a Facebook message, or post something on my wall, than give me a call. And, from my experience, it is not because they are pressed for time or greatly inconvenienced by picking up the phone to dial my number. Rather, there is a certain fear of direct, personal human communication.
During my last NCSY weekend retreat, I interviewed my high school students asking the following: Do you, and if yes why, prefer using Facebook and other forms of social media to communicate with friends, rather than calling them, sending them an email (which, apparently, is old school at this point), or even meeting up in person?
As always with teenagers (and one of the primary reasons I so greatly enjoy working with this age group), the answers I received were incredibly diverse, and candid. The first teenager I asked, a popular high school junior, answered honestly, “the more personal the contact, the more intimidating.” Questioning her further, she explained that social media provides a sort of “buffer” so that you don’t make “embarrassing social mistakes.” When you use Facebook to contact a friend, you have time and distance to plan out what you’re going to say. A phone-call, on the other hand, supremely increases the “risk” of embarrassing social blunders.
In response to my question, a male NCSYer responded, “It’s not as easy for people to judge you when you communicate through Facebook.” When I asked him if he thinks people judge others by their social media accounts, he responded affirmatively. I then asked him, in lieu of his second response, to reevaluate his first answer. Thinking for a moment, he responded, “Yes, it’s true. In both cases, phone and Facebook, people are going to judge. But, on Facebook, you’re not aware of it. If someone is looking at your picture and judging you, or looking at your status update and judging you, you’ll never know about. People don’t realize they’re being judged through social media, and that’s what makes it so easy.”
Both responses, and several of the others I received, reflected a similar point: social media creates distance, and in distance, there’s a mirage of safety. The closer the social interaction, the more personal the dialogue, the more vulnerable one feels. Social media creates this sort of barrier, a smoke screen between oneself and the other person, in which there is a sense of security. Anonymity, even when, ironically, the increase of social media venues has made the possibility of remaining “anonymous” in today’s world almost impossible, remains a tempting prospect. Even when confronted with the falsehood of this assumption, the feeling that there is distance when using social media is addictive, teenagers increasingly shy away from direct social contact because of the “risks,” exposure and judgment, that it seems to accompany.
Today, I am an active Facebook user. Pursuing a career in journalism, I utilize Facebook to the fullest extent, posting articles and connecting with friends and professional colleagues. While I am definitely not one to decry the use of social media, I do think it is critical to remain aware of the damages it can incur on intrapersonal relationships, so we can do everything within our power to prevent those trends in our own lives.