Millions of people use Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to converse with friends. We use Skype to bridge long distances, Whatsapp to make plans, and Twitter to interact with public figures. But as more of our lives move online, are internet-based interactions sufficient for a fulfilling life?
There have been considerable warnings about the drawbacks of online interactions. Sherry Turkle, professor in Science, Technology and Society at MIT, wrote in the New York Times that our devotion to the screen is detracting from face-to-face conversations, reducing empathy, and damaging substantive friendships.
One study, led by child psychologist Yalda Uhls, showed that children who spent time with television and computers were significantly worse at recognizing nonverbal emotional cues than those who had just five days without screens.
But there is another side to the argument: A 2015 Pew Foundation report found that teenagers use online interactions to strengthen their friendships. Plus, 57% of teenagers reported that they’d made friends online.
Amori Mikami, psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, has conducted several studies on online interactions and tells Quartz that the nature on online communication is changing as young people embrace social networks in an entirely different way.
Too much research tends to lump all online interactions together, she says, instead of distinguishing between positive, meaning conversations and more superficial, negative exchanges. “Emerging adults and millennials are comfortable socializing and opening up online,” says Mikami, whose work was presented at the Society for Peronsal and Social Psychology 17th annual convention on Friday.
Online communities can be especially useful for people who have an unusual concern and live in isolated areas, and so are unlikely to meet people with similar concerns in person.
Indeed, some young people seem to find it easier to express their emotions in times of crisis via text, rather than spoken aloud. Crisis Text Line counselors currently send and receive 20,000 messages a day. The service, “offers a layer of protection from the shame of expressing your vulnerabilities,” Anthony Pisani, a suicide prevention researcher at the University of Rochester, told the New York Times.
The major difference of online interactions compared to in-person ones is that social networks allow users to interact with so many people at once, says Mikami. And whether or not that’s positive or negative depends on the type of friends you have.
But ultimately, Mikami believes that it’s possible to get the same level of fulfillment from online interactions as it is from in-person friends.
“This might be hard for older adults to believe and it might not be possible for them, because they might not feel comfortable having those kinds of deep online interactions. To them, the online world will always be more superficial,” says Mikam. “But millenials really see it differently.”
As the nature of online interactions continually evolve, it’s difficult to definitively establish whether or not social media friendships alone are sufficient. But for those who don’t have strong in-person support groups, the value of online communities shouldn’t be dismissed.