While I was skiing a few months ago I observed a situation which made me feel old, well, at least found me pining for simpler times. Sitting a a table near me was a young girl phoning her friend to tell her that she was uploading her photos to her facebook profile and that she should take a look. This in itself wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the fact that the friend in question was sitting at another table only a matter of a few yards away from her. I knew this as I was able to hear both sides of the phone conversation simultaneously. I’m not joking here, by the way; this really happened.
This clearly and rather horrifyingly – it is horrifying, just think about it for a minute – shows how our latest generation of students is being ever more exposed to social networking sites. The Internet now utterly surrounds us. When we are not on our laptops at home surfing the Internet we – by we I mean you – use ‘Smartphones’ and ‘netbooks’ to satisfy our – your – addiction to the new media. Even if you haven’t talked to someone in a decade, you know his or her entire life story by following their bloody Facebook page. It’s reaching the point where college students are demonstrating that there is a direct correlation between their social networking intensity and life satisfaction. Students who ‘use’ social networking now consider themselves more ‘satisfied’ with their ‘lives’.
Furthermore, young people use social networking websites to follow otherwise mundane topics such as politics. Students use the platforms as a place to discuss current events, as witnessed in the 2008 American Presidential Election. Students who were regarded as ‘less likely to discuss these issues in real life’ participated in discussion boards, surveys, and other interactive content. Isn’t this a good thing? Social networking sites now provide young people, in many cases, with their only contact with news, purely in soundbite form. This feels mighty dangerous to me.
Social networking sites have rapidly become a resource for people to share their own experiences as they connect with other users and their experiences. Such sites have become the contemporary human’s ‘third place’. This ‘place’, which used to be the pub or other such locale, can now be located at home and work (conventionally our first and second places). These sites have become an all too convenient way to connect with friends, family, and peers, to share photos, videos, stories, and let other users know what they are currently doing. This convenience is coming at an extreme price. Here are some ways in which we – you – are endangering ourselves – yourselves – with the overuse of social networks.
1. They encourage infantilism
I wrote reasonably recently about trying to overcome the difficulties my students have with dealing concentrating in class and getting them to actively think. These problems may well stem from infantilism, which is the persistence of infantile characteristics in one’s adult life. Similar to the way that babies or young children constantly need stimulus, many scientists fear this is exactly what is happening to the adult mind with overexposure to social networking websites.
2. They augment attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
The other night I was watching the Tarkovsky masterpiece ‘Solaris’. This film, like Tarkovsky’s other, is characterized by extremely slow camera panning and prolonged focus on miniscule details. While watching it struck me how difficult it would be for my students to sit down and devote two and a half hours of their lives to this film. The have, quite simply, not grown up in an environment in which they have been required to focus for an extended period of time on one particular stimulus. The practice of logging on daily to see hundreds of new photos, comments, and user statuses have begun to take away our ability to keep our focus on something for more than an hour or two, making ADHD a very real and possible effect of social networking sites.
3. They lead to depression and loneliness
Social networks provide an outlet for the socially challenged to express themselves in digital form. However, the term ‘social networking’ genuinely misleads people into believing they are becoming increasingly social beings. Sitting in front of your computer for hours on end chatting with friends while playing bloody Farmville does not translate into the development of social skills. People become dependent on the technology and forget how to interact with the world around them. When interacting with someone through text messages, instant messaging, or email, a large segment of how humans interact with one another is gone.
4. They cause narcism
Narcism is the excessive love or admiration of yourself. This has become one of the largest problems associated with the development of online personas, especially in social network users. Social network sites seem to be enhancing self-entitled thinking and this is a very dangerous thing. This can negatively affect how we see ourselves, as well as how we treat and perceive others. The result of all this is that someone’s online personality may be completely different from their offline persona, causing chaos when their two lives interconnect. The negative impact of social networking sites is evident in online dating when the couple meets face-to-face for the first time. Frequently, their personalities do not match their self-written, narcissistic descriptions. It is much easier to type what someone wants to hear – and what you have actually started to believe about yourself – rather than telling the truth.
5. They are decimating productivity in the workplace
There are of course benefits to using social networks in the work community, especially if employees are promoting their business on the Internet. Examples might include posting new content to school or university profiles, adding pictures of work-related events, and interacting with potential students. Nevertheless, if you’re facing a performance evaluation, you should probably reassess your use of social media at work. I have colleagues who can’t control their Facebook use to the extent that they are frequently ten to fifteen minutes late for class because they are using this website. Social networking sites create too many distractions in the workplace and cost employers money. It’s estimated that employees are currently spending on average of 40 minutes per week on social networking sites while at work. While 40 minutes may not sound like a long time, over a one-year period it is costing employers in America alone in excess of $2 billion.
6. In some cases you may be risking your job
The likes of Facebook and MySpace are excellent resources for human resource managers because they offer revealing information about a candidate’s true ‘interests’. Most job seekers don’t bother to set their profiles to private, leaving an open door to their potential employers. Almost every profile contains embarrassing or compromising information to an employer, such as their political affiliation or religion (think about the culture you’re working in). Younger generations seem to have a complete disregard for their own privacy, opening doors to unwelcome predators or stalkers. Information posted on social networks is permanent. When someone posts pictures or videos on the internet they can go ‘viral’ (a word which apparently now has positive connotations). When the user deletes a video from his or her social network, someone may have already posted it on YouTube. People post photographs and video files on social networking sites without thinking and the files might reappear at the worst possible moments.
Is it all bad?
Some describe the likes of Twitter as being a great tool for research and inspiration. This is presumably because of the Medici effect of all the criss-crossing connections between users sharing conversations, ideas, questions and links. By attracting talented individuals from many different fields and cultures, the Medicis got all these creative people in contact with one another to trade ideas and collaborate. This intersection of concepts and diverse backgrounds kicked off the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in human history. Some claim we could see such resurgence in creativity thanks to social networking.
Nevertheless, the negative impact of social networking sites is profound. People are becoming increasingly dependent on their social networks and the internet in general. The use of smart phones and broadband Internet connections is widespread and is leading to increased dependency on social networks. The effects of social networking can be seen at work, in our classrooms and throughout society in general. Excessive use of the technology is creating antisocial and house dwelling citizens who lack social skills.
I’d be very happy to hear your rebuttals, and will leave you with this one thought: you don’t see the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise engaged in anything analogous to tweeting, do you?
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