Over the past few years, I’ve heard people complain quite often that social media—especially Facebook and Twitter—is destructive to relationships as well as the individual. Whereas I can see how this can be true in some instances, I do think the criticisms have gotten the lion’s share of the attention. In my experience, the discussion has drowned out some very positive things about social media. Personally, I think social media has some great benefits, so much so that I’d even call them blessings.
Sometime in the past year, I was having a conversation with a high school student named Jason*. He shared with me that he doesn’t like it how sometimes social media gets a bad rap. He said that if it hadn’t been for social media, he would not have the social skills that he has today.
Jason went on to explain that prior to social media, he had a lot of difficulty navigating the social landscape. He even confessed that he had significant bouts of social anxiety. He just wasn’t sure how to engage people, what was and wasn’t appropriate to say, how much time needed to pass in a friendship before he could engage in more intimate discussions, and so on. Being a highly analytical thinker who likes to understand actions and their implications deeply, social situations were difficult for him because they did not allow for him the time he needed to process interactions and to formulate what he believed to be the appropriate protocols. By the time a phrase, expression or bodily cue had come and gone, it was too late. Because of this, so often he would find himself in awkward social situations. Understandably, the trauma of each situation probably only made the next ones harder.
However, he explains that on Facebook and on other social media sites, he can study interactions at his own pace, and he can engage people thoughtfully. He shares that when people get to know him online, they’re able to see his real personality, and they like him. Then when he “goes live” with these people, they don’t treat him as socially awkward nerd, but as a person. He believes that without social media, life would have been much harder for him.
There is this tendency in our culture to say that all meaningful interactions only happen face to face. My experience shows me that this is an overstated myth that doesn’t take into account the testimony of people like Jason. It also shows me that extroversion has dictated the parameters for what we believe are healthy social interactions. So many people think that a healthy person should be able to build social competence face-to-face like everyone else. Well the truth is, not everyone is able to do it like that. Unfortunately, those who cannot accomplish social growth in this way are labeled as deviants. Could it be that some people are of the temperament that they need “crutches” like Facebook to help them express themselves, build relationships and grow their social toolbox? And when I say “crutches,” I mean it in the proper and most positive sense. A crutch is a helpful tool that people can lean on enabling them to develop the necessary skills and strength and confidence so the crutch is eventually no longer necessary.
Some people will respond, But isn’t there a healthier way for people like Jason to develop social skills, like interacting with and learning from a live, human mentor? So, basically, we’re asking a person like Jason who already struggles with social situations to go out and ask someone to personally mentor him? I find that suggestion to exhibit a massive failure at understanding and empathizing with those who genuinely struggle socially. And how many people, on their own volition and without any solicitation, are gonna say, Oh, I see a socially awkward person. It must be hard for them. I’m gonna take them under my wing.?
Social media gives people who struggle with social interactions a very useful and highly adaptable tool that they can control and titrate to their own needs.
Of course, I believe social media is much more than a crutch. In fact, there is a whole treasure trove of gifts to be found in it; however, for those to whom it serves as a crutch, it is indeed a tremendous blessing.
I understand it can be abused. And I understand that there are studies out that examine the structural impact of social media—I still need to do that research. But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater as so many have done without taking the time to really hear from people like Jason.
I will write more on the blessings of social media in my next post, but I hope the above testimonial was helpful.
*Not his real name.