Is social media sabotaging your relationships?

The advent of social media – emails, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – has radically changed our means of communication. But is it making us happier?

‘Low’ internet users are happier

A recent study found that adolescents who self-reported as ‘low’ internet users (less than one hour per day) had better relationships with friends and family than those who reported ‘moderate’ (one to two hours per day) and ‘high’ (more than two hours per day).

The authors concluded that excessive internet use could interfere with face-to-face relationships, as illustrated by a recent survey showing that one in 10 young adults in the USA admitted to having checked their smartphone during sex!

Professor Sir Cary Cooper of the Manchester Business School is also concerned about the effect of work emails on our stress and social life. “Something like 40% of people wake up, and the first thing they do is check their email,” he says. “For another 40%, it’s the last thing they do at night.”He is concerned that too many people are spending too much time in ‘work’ mode.

These media do allow us to connect with people we have perhaps lost touch with, or make new friends out of common connections or interests. However, we need to be mindful if they become a shallow replacement for real intimacy with close friends which is the true gateway to connection.

Unfriend my Heart

An example of this is the stress Facebook puts on relationships and the new culture of breaking up on social media. When researching this topic for my new book The Chemistry of Connection, I interviewed Ilana Gershon, assistant professor of communication and culture at Indiana University. She was alerted to this problem when she asked her students what constituted a bad breakup.

“I was expecting people to have really dramatic stories –‘I caught them in bed together’ -something like that. Instead, they all responded with tales of outrage about the medium rather than the message, complaining that they got the bad news by text or by Facebook rather than in person.”

This led Gershon to research the nature and effect of social media by interviewing 72 college students and Facebook users. One girl, Rose, told her, “If people want to maintain a romantic relationship, both members of the couple should get off Facebook.” Why? “While my interviewees insisted that Facebook turned them into jealous selves, I argue that the problem was in fact that Facebook encouraged them to be false selves—selves that were not conducive to the romantic connections they had or wanted to have.”

Gershon sees the problem with Facebook and similar media, is that “not only do they create only shallow connections, but that they encourage people to treat each other as commodities or businesses: that Facebook takes the logic of viewing the world in terms of consumption, and extends this to the most intimate of relationships. When the self metaphorically becomes a business, it is a compilation of measurable skills and assets that enters into relationships with other selves which may have different arrays of skills. Facebook’s interface is constantly suggesting that people add more and more alliances to their profile.”

The Power of Vulnerability

But what makes for ‘quality’ in social relationships? Brené Brown is a professor of social work. Her TED talk, ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, which has had over 20 million views, explains her research on connection.

She found that when she asked about love, people told her about heartbreak. When asked about belonging, they told her about feeling excluded. When she asked about connection, they told her about experiences of disconnection. The breakthrough for her was realizing that shame was the fear of disconnection. “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it means I won’t be worthy of connection? It’s the “I’m not good enough”. The idea is that in order for connection to happen we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”

A recent study found that good social connections – friends, family, neighbours or colleagues – improved the odds of survival by 50 per cent. Loneliness, with a lack of such connections, was as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and twice as harmful as obesity. Persistent loneliness and social isolation should be given the same attention as chronic illness, as a lack of feeling of social connectedness is a major predictor of early mortality.

In Brené Brown’s research with thousands of people she found that the big difference between people who had a sense of love and belonging and those who didn’t was that those who did believed they were worthy.

Often this sense of unworthiness is rooted in failures in the past. I talk in the book about how to get your past out of your present. Also people who have more belief in themselves are more likely to keep trying when the going gets tough. So, if you are in a negative mindset, it is important to treat yourself with compassion, to not give up, to rebuild and reclaim your self-esteem. If you find yourself down in the dumps, just do something distracting and enjoyable for a couple of minutes. Don’t bury yourself in a hole of despair. Find a way out of it.

The other thing they had in common was that they fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. Why do we struggle with vulnerability? What makes us feel vulnerable? Uncertainty is a big problem. Instead of living with it, we make everything certain. We ‘perfect’ our image. On social media we post only those photos, those stories that make us look good. We reinforce a false image of ourselves and, often, our children. And we blame as a way of discharging shame and discomfort. This inevitably leads to even deeper disconnection. There is a better way.

This is an excerpt from The Chemistry of Connection.

Boost your love life and improve your relationships at my Five Keys To Connection Seminars this Spring 2017, starting 27th March,  in Richmond, Glastonbury, Cheltenham and London.