For Fulfilling Human Connection, Put Down Your Phone

I always have trouble explaining why I left social media. Circumstances usually dictate that I avoid rambling about my journey to personal enlightenment, leaving me the painstaking search for conversational middle ground. Lately, I’ve found the golden mean in a distillation of my would-be rant: I’m happier without it.

To some, that explanation is puzzling. Using social media can feed our evolutionary desires for social approval and a sense of connectedness with our peers. Furthermore, it allows us to craft a self-image with a precision that the real world often doesn’t allow. However, the online milieu offers a false hope to students looking for improved well-being and strengthened interpersonal connections. On a college campus, friendship unfettered by social media is the key to genuine social fulfillment.

I arrived at this belief only gradually. I used to think that my own and others’ social media profiles were unique and tangible bits of ourselves, that collecting all of the pieces was essential to anyone who hoped to really know us. I felt this way until I happened upon Time Well Spent — “a movement to transform the race for our attention” founded by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris — and realized that companies like Facebook, Snap Inc. (Snapchat’s parent company), Twitter and Instagram do not exist to foster our friendships.

Those social media giants exist for profit, which they gain at the nefarious expense of our time. Those organizations are among a collection of tech companies bankrolled by corporate advertisers that thrive on capturing our focus and keeping our eyes glued to ad-filled apps and websites. As Harris explains, social networking websites pay engineers to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities and keep us scrolling on their platforms for as long as possible. Those websites rely on a staggering variety of bait to lure us in, and our susceptibility to their enticement may be best viewed through the lens of the behavior model created by B.J. Fogg, founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.

Fogg identifies three “core motivators” — belonging, sensation and anticipation — that drive human behavior and that social media companies target to keep us using their services. Social networking websites cater directly to our need to feel that we belong within a social group by offering us membership in an online club, where the perks include a written record confirming the fact of our friendships. With a few taps, we have access to a list of friends, likes, comments, messages and more, proof that we’re enmeshed in the social fabric. Consider the power of the ubiquitous red notification bubble on Apple’s iPhones, one visual representation of the sensations we feel after each dose of digital acknowledgement. Engineers design notifications to appear on no set schedule, often one at a time, in order to keep us constantly anticipating the next bit of social connection — anticipation that manifests in habitual, mindless device checking. Through their apps’ design and content, social media companies push us to incessant monitoring and posting on their platforms. This behavior, arguably the paradigm for our generation, may be undermining our mental and social health.

A growing body of research suggests that passive consumption and broadcasting on social media do little to strengthen our social ties, and rather produce a number of negative feelings. According to a 2011 study, we tend to overestimate our friends’ positive emotions and underestimate their negative ones, which may cause us to feel more alone in our emotional difficulties than we truly are. That tendency, the researchers find, likely stems from our penchant for projecting our positive emotions and suppressing our negative emotions. Social media gives us unprecedented control over what we reveal to our online network, and our proclivity for positive self-presentation seeps into our posts, making even the most mundane social outing seem like the party of a lifetime. On campus, we exist in peer-dominated online circles, and are constantly bombarded with our friends’ filtered blasts into the digital universe. We make social comparisons based on hand-picked photos and videos, broadcast to support constructed identities, and thereby reinforce false perceptions of our own and others’ social lives. It should come as no surprise that recent studies link widespread envy and the “fear of missing out” to those types of passive online activities — feelings exacerbated on campus where we are surrounded by hundreds of peers who hold similar social goals.

A 2016 study lead by Moira Burke, a Facebook data scientist, found that even when we’re directly engaged on social media, we receive limited social benefits. Only “composed, targeted communication” (wall posts, comments and direct messages) from close friends was linked to improved well-being, defined in the study by self-reported measures of field-established aspects of well-being, including “mood, perceived social support, satisfaction with life, depression, stress and loneliness.” The study found that all other forms of interaction, such as “one-click communication” (likes and reactions) from people of all intimacy levels, and even direct communication from “weak ties,” those who aren’t our close friends, have no observable impact.

Though social media encourages the maintenance of a vast network of connections, it seems that most of those connections are superficial and unfulfilling. That view permeates literature associating the rise of social media with rampant loneliness in our country and research that finds increased social media use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults — all of this, despite expectations that these online communities would make us happier by bringing us closer together.

This is not to say that all types of online socialization bring negative results. Perhaps your grandmother overlooks the narcissism of your selfie posts and takes great pride in expressing her love for you with comments on all your pictures. Maybe your friends in faraway places enjoy keeping abreast of you via your “stories.” More importantly, research supports the emotional benefits of online discussion forums (where users are often cloaked in anonymity), especially for members of stigmatized groups who have trouble finding social support elsewhere. The trouble with social media arises when we let online communication dominate our interactions with the people in our own, and neighboring, social circles.

Luckily, as campus-collegians, we live in close proximity to many of our online “friends” and “followers” who belong in these groups. We’re in the perfect position to put down our phones and find the social fulfillment we crave the old-fashioned way: in the flesh, rather than in the blue-light of our devices. Real, physical interaction is at the core of a solid friendship; all the rest is excess.

Biology elucidates what I can only hope to explain through subjective experience: Face-to-face encounters leave deep, lasting impressions unlike any you will feel through a screen. A 2012 study in the Journal of Neuroscience shows “a significant increase in the neural synchronization between the brains” of two individuals during face-to-face dialogue but not during virtual communication. Neural synchronization, it concludes, “underlies successful communication” and likely results from our need to integrate sensory information, such as facial expressions, gestures and vocal tone, and truly engage with the other person, exclusively during face-to-face conversation. In a 2014 TED Talk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Alex Pentland discussed the social importance of the unspoken aspects of in-person dialogue. He posited that language is merely the last, thin layer atop all the ways humans communicated before its advent, and that we still rely heavily on ancient behavioral signals in order to convey our intentions, goals and values.

A review of the current science of touch provides my case one final boon — the notion that the oft-forgotten sensory modality is at the base of all human relationships. In a piece for The New Yorker, staff writer Adam Gopnik relates the science to a Hegelian notion of self-consciousness — that we conceive of ourselves based on our relations with other individuals, not the imagined self inside of our heads. Gopnik writes, “a key to being embodied in this way is tactile experience … Grasping, hugging, striking, playing, caressing, reaching, scratching backs and rubbing rears: These are not primitive forms of communication. They are the fabric of being conscious.”

How we think about ourselves and our relationships is inextricably linked to our bodily experience. Greeting a friend with a hug, looking them in the eye while you talk and listen, is only possible in the realm of the physical. It is this type of interaction that builds the trust and reciprocity which undergirds meaningful relationships as well as the self-esteem that allows us to venture out and build them. Give up mining for social implications in a trove of liked photographs. Instead, search the depths of a look or a touch for all it may convey — I can almost guarantee you’ll find the sense of connection you desire.

Charles King is a College senior from New Rochelle, N.Y.

Correction (11/16/17): The article misidentified King as a College junior. He is a College senior.