Social Distractions

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(Image by – smlions12)

On average we spend over three hours on social networking sights a day, but is our submergence in a virtual world dumbing us down or could it actually be making us more socially adept?

Social media has fast become an essential part of many people’s modern techno fuelled lives. The usual media spin has been that it is turning us into moronic zombies, sapping us of intelligence and having a detrimental impact on our traditional social skills. We are increasingly living out our lives online. Our addiction to the gadgets which increasingly control our lives is also causing us to split our attention more quickly between tasks and different media. But new research suggests this could be positive and could even be making us more intelligent.

On the day this article was written there were 2,841,558,950 internet users in the world; which has grown exponentially since 2000 when there were just 361 million internet users. Out of today’s internet users more than half, 58%, have a profile on a social network. However, 98% of 18-24 year olds use social media. Because teenagers have grown up with the rapid development of technology and social media they have become far more adept and used to using it in their daily lives.

But there is no denying that social media and the gadgets we use to access our social networks are distracting us and splitting our time and concentration ever thinner. With so many media channels and sources vying for our attention, young people are becoming hyper-stimulated.

“One reason why kids prefer text messaging to phone calls is that it is easier to text in the background of other activities and to manage multiple attention streams,” says Kelvin Lui, a psychologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Current research suggests that humans cannot multi-task and are not good at dealing with data bombardment. However as young people have grown up with these technologies, so have their coping mechanisms. Some academics say that by constantly switching between tasks you concentrate more on the switch than either task. But rapidly toggling between technologies shows quick thinking and explorative development, which are desirable qualities in the modern work place.

According to an Ofcom report published last year two thirds of UK 12 to 15 year olds now have a smartphone, which are used for social networking 65% of the time. Data from Nokia suggests, smartphone owners on average check their phones every six minutes, totalling an average of 150 times a day. This seems like a huge interruption into our working or schooling days, which must surely make a huge dent in our productivity? But often these interactions may only be short lived and can often complement our work. For example some more forward thinking schools are beginning to incorporate social media in the classroom. A primary school teacher in Ontario gets her class involved in day long Twitter projects, discussing topics with other users worldwide. Even in the UK some schools have decided to incorporate smartphones into their learning strategy; when they could otherwise be a distraction to students they can now exploit this media for its full potential. At a school in Surrey all homework is being set online, with the use of smartphones positively encouraged during school hours to support the students academic work. By accepting the inevitable progression and infiltration of mobile phones and social media, these schools are taking control, helping to create the right nurturing environment to banish the novelty factor of what could be a distraction, and fully utilising these amazing tools.

Although some institutions are beginning to embrace new technology there is still a general under current of disdain for online media and its perceived negative connotations. Tom Cheshire, assistant editor at UK WIRED, believes that “We need to stop scaremongering about technology, not just because it’s wrong, but it’s harmful”. In a recent study done by Reynol Junco, an American researcher, young people overestimated how long they spent online by five times as much.

“Society is telling them it’s bad, and they’re accepting it. That’s not how to raise a generation. We’re making youth feel bad about a normal part of their lives,” says Junco.

As we are learning to work with social media rather than against it, new research is beginning to suggest that it could even be making us smarter. Andrea Lunsford at Stanford University compared essays written by first year university students from 1917, 1930, 1986 and 2006, and found that the students writing became more sophisticated and had less mistakes. Lunsford said, “this wasn’t in spite of pervasive digital media and demands on their attention – it was because of it.” This successful progression in student’s academic work cannot be solely down to the explosion of digital media, but the research showed it had a significant positive impact.

“With support, digital media can … provide new possibilities for the development of children’s communicative skills. This suggests that, used thoughtfully, technology can enhance rather than hinder social interaction.” (Lydia Plowman, Professor in Education and Technology at the University of Edinburgh)

The explosion of social media and young generations increased time spent on its networks actually means we are writing and communicating more, just in different ways. Whether its texting, Twitter, Snapchat or WhatsApp, teenagers in particular are writing more than they ever have before. The wistful bygone era of letter writing may be lost on today’s youngsters but the art of the perfect 140 character tweet is being exploited.

However the allure of technology makes it easier for us to micromanage our lives and our personal image, bypassing traditional social development. Our followers and virtual friends are massaging our increasingly narcissistic egos, making us feel loved albeit deluded:

“Instead of building true friendships we’re obsessed with endless personal promotion, investing hours on end building our profile, pursuing the optimal order of words for our next message, choosing the pictures in which we look our best, all of which is meant to serve as a desirable image of who we are.”

“We’re collecting friends like stamps, not distinguishing quantity versus quality and converting the deep meaning and intimacy of friendship with exchanging photos and chat conversations. By doing so we’re sacrificing conversation for mere connection. And so a paradoxical situation is created, in which we claim to have many friends while actually being lonely,” says graphic designer Shimi Cohen

By self-editing and constructing our online self’s we are stopping ourselves from making real friends, instead maintaining connections. We’ve made socialising a business.

A study by Harvard researchers in 2012 found that disclosing personal information about oneself activates the same sensation of pleasure as the brain experiences from eating food or having sex. The research showed that more than 80% of social media consists of announcements about oneself (compared to 30-40% of human speech. This is compounded by the set up of the major social network players profile platforms, which are fuelled by seemingly narcissistic statements from users. But this proves what many people already know, that there is a self-satisfaction that comes with divulging personal information on social networks, even more so if that’s coupled with likes, or re-tweets. That tweeting about your day could be tantamount to good sex seems an extreme outcome, but one that I’m sure most people will repeat.

Social media is an ever powerful tool that can, educate us, keep us connected, give us a happy buzz and is even making younger generations smarter. Given the right environment technology and social networks can help assist our lives and relationships, but we must be careful not let it take over. It’s important to maintain your social groups in the real world as well in cyber space. We are writing and communicating more than ever but across a much broader range of formats and media. Technological advances will continue to enlighten our lives, and social networks can help us, but like everything can only help in moderation. Social media is helping us to connect and socialise more widely, and is even helping us in school and at work, but we must be careful not to get too lost in the bubble.

Written by Sarah Dickinson @sarahdick91 (Community Manager at ReferenceME)

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