There is no question that the internet is transforming our lives. Information technology has become integral to personal and professional activities, including social life across the age span. Internet dating alone is changing the face of courtship and dating, and while we are already being shaped by the technology we have created, we can’t comprehend the full effects of this uncontrolled social experiment. We have unleashed powerful forces we don’t understand, and we both enjoy the fruits and suffer the consequences of this new and evolving fixture of our lives.
While the internet, information techology and social media are penetrating and transforming nearly every aspect of our lives, nowhere is it more pivotal than for young people. The decisions we make now will shape the future of our society, and as parents will directly affect the development and wellbeing of our children, who are growing up in the wild, wild west of social media.
Social and emotional development is shaped by the internet and social media as part of the inherent texture of their environment. Adults are behind the curve in getting a clear sense of what exactly is going on. We see it in our children, but we often don’t know what they are up to, and we see it in new generations of young adults, who older folks may have difficulty connecting with because we don’t necessarily understand what their basic social experience has been like.
There is concern that the internet and social media are having a negative impact. News reports and real-life based fictional accounts tell a sometimes grim and frightening story: internet teasing and bullying, social exclusion, abuse by peers, predation by pedophiles, and the like, lead to serious harm culminating in life-long damage and even suicide. We are permitting the use of the internet, and social media in particular, without understanding what we are getting into – and the guidelines we use are based on minimal scholarly understanding. Parents and other stakeholders need to be more aware of what social media is doing to kids, and consider ways of supporting the positives, mitigating the negatives, and clarifying areas of ambivalence.
With this in mind, Howard, Debnam and Strausser (2017) sought out to study the way the internet is perceived and used by a group of adolescent girls in a major mid Atlantic city. They used a quanititative analysis study design, interviewing 70 girls 15 to 18 years old, from an ethnically diverse sample. Using a structured interview format, they met with each girl for 1 to 1.5 hours, focusing on the principle question “Do you think the Internet has influenced your ideas about dating and dating relationships? How so? In what ways?”, with directed follow-up questions. Using accepted statistical approaches, they developed a “codebook” and analyzed the interviews for content, indentifying themes and subthemes which accurately reflect collective attitudes regarding internet usage. Their data were “saturated,” meaning that they collected enough information from enough participants that the responses overlapped significantly enough to conclude they were getting a good snapshot of the situation.
They identified three themes: “Positive utilities of social media in dating relationships”, “Negative utilities of social media in dating relationships”, and “Mixed utilities – the intersection of positive and negative utilities.”
1) Positive utilities of social media in dating relationships.
Subtheme – Helping the relationship get started and grow: Over 40% of the girls interviewed noted that social media was beneficial for starting and keeping relationships. They described an inversion of the traditional pattern of meeting in person and talking on the phone. Rather, they met on the internet using sites such as Facebook, got to know several people, and decided to meet in person if they liked them, usually after a couple of months. They noted they rarely spoke on the telephone, instead using texting and instant messaging apps to speak, and sometimes video chats such as Skype for greater presence. Using the term with a different connotation, girls noted that “stalking” partners on social media was a way to check up on them, using social networks to get indirect information about potential dating partners as a way to vet them before meeting. For example, girls could friend friends of a potential dating partner and see what he posted on other friends’ pages, and speak with other girls about what he was like and how he might get along – a “crowdsourced matchmaker,” if you will. Checking up in this way was also reportedly useful to check for possible cheating or lesser forms of disloyalty e.g. flirting with others.
Subtheme – Making the relationship official: Girls interviewed noted that they used Facebook’s relationship status feature to make it clear that they were going out with someone. About one third reported this was a positive for social media, letting everone know their relationship was official. Presumably, though the authors did not highlight this factor, making the relationship public and official also increases the sense of committment for the couple, at least to some extent – though the ease of changing relationship status online arguably weakens the meaning of being in a relationship.
Subtheme – Using the internet to set boundaries: About 13% noted that they used social media to establish desirable protective boundaries. For instance, they could talk freely with a potential partner and get to know them with less risk of getting hurt than if they spent time together in person. They could be more open and honest online, rather than having to act aloof and keep important things to themselves. In addition, some girls use the “in a relationship” or “it’s complicated” status when single as a way to deter advances and avoid questions in their social group about being single.
2) Negative utilities of social media in dating relationships
Subtheme – Getting into trouble: 56.5% of girls reported that using social media could be dangerous due to the public and visible nature of the medium, and the inability to really know people online they way you can if you first meet them in person, in a familiar social group. Someone you meet online could be completely different from who they say they are, and could be a potentially dangerous sexual predator or abusive peer. In addition, the motives of third parties on social media were not always benign – peers, rather than being supportive and protective, could interfere with online relationships in harmful and malicious ways.
Subtheme – Drama and gossip: Nearly half of girls reported that social media can catalyze negative relationship outcomes. They reported that social media is used by many simple to spread rumors and incite conflict, amplifying familiar adolescent dynamics. On the internet, anyone can say anything – there are minimal limits on what people can say, and few boundaries to check nasty behaviors. Both reputations and relationships can be easily destroyed, and what happens online shows up the next day in school, leading to additional harm. Others’ comments can lead to jealousy, and the end of the relationship, because it is easy to insert oneself into someone else’s public dialogue. The internet lacks the privacy than in-person conversation offers.
3) Mixed utilities – The intersection of positive and negative utilities. The impact of the internet was seen as fundamentally ambivalent, with positive and negative features which were often two sides of the same coin.
Subtheme – Connection and disconnection: 64% of girls addressed that while the internet facilitated social interactions and dating, the degree of connection was very limited especially when the relationship remained primarily in the realm of social media, rather than developing into a real relationship. While the internet is useful for meeting more people and getting to know them and check on them before meeting in person, frequently the relationship remained superficial and unsatisfying. Girls reported that while you might think you know someone after dating them for a while, there’s a good chance you don’t really know what they are like. You may get along with someone online, but in person there is no chemistry and they aren’t at all the way they seemed online. In addition, the rules of dating are especially unclear online, muddying the already hazy waters of teen romance. There was a concern that some potential partners were acting interested in dating, but were only looking for sex. Beoys who seem nice may be using girls to bolster their online presence, for example bragging about “[moving] on from one girl to the next” after breaking-up, and getting a lot of facebook attention as a result but leaving the girl feeling hurt, used and presumably wary.
Subtheme – Privacy, attention and pressure: While it is great to have lots of friends and get attention, talk with new people, and use the internet for dating, 52% of girls also reported that being online was a burden, often feeling pressured to keep up with constant online activity. Knowing that all their friends are watching created anxiety about social confirmity and judgment, adding to the emotional burden. Because of the dual nature of social media, benefit and harm could quickly shift from one extreme to the other. Regarding terminology, “stalking” was not used in a negative way (as noted above contrary to familiar usage) and in fact was often used in a positive way, but “creeping” (and the related terms “creep” and “creepy”) definitely is bad. In terms of the actual dating relationship, girls expressed ambivalence about using social media – while it helped to facilitate meeting, especially for shy people, they also felt like they had to stay in constant contact, day and night, communicating directly and monitoring social media. Similarly, girls reported constantly checking in on friends’ activities on social media, as well.
There are many complicated implications of these findings, which we are still coming to understand. While there are many positives and many negatives of social media, the prevailing characteristic is uncertainty and ambivalence. The use of social media to check on peers and dating partners suggests a level of anxiety and mistrust, but may also represent constructive adaptation to this new and evolving medium.
Social media may be a testing ground to play with new identities, a comparatively shielded space to try out new behaviors. It may be problematic as social behaviors and self-perceptions formed online are unlikely to translate well into real-world settings, potentially leading to future problems in work and social relationships and depriving adolescents of the opportunity to face their fears about in-person social relationships.
In my practice, I’m seeing younger adults who are much more comfortable online, and use online relating to avoid socializing in-person, leading to developmental delays and impacting their ability to be successful in college and afterward as they have to catch up with basic social skills they missed out on during adolescence. They are often out of touch with themselves, and more connected with a once-removed social media identity which reads as fundamentally inauthentic. On the other hand, they are better adapted to function in virtual environments, and online relationships connect one with people we’d otherwise never get to meet, expanding the range of our social experience if we do not stick to our usual affinity groups.
The risks of amplifying negative social relations is a clear one with social media. The involvement of a large group of malicious bystanders can turn a minor relationship disappointment into a major experience of humiliation which quickly translates in to the real-world the next day at school. Socially awkward individuals can be targeted and driven to developmentally damaging and dangerous extremes.
Social media allows for easy access by bullies, who can target vulnerable individuals with extreme and public aggression. Predators can identify vulnerable people and target them for abuse. Coercive dating partners can use social media to closely track and control their partners without respite, and victims are likely to keep such abuse secret from those who could help. It is expected that negative and abusive relationship patterns and the effects on personal development will carry over into adulthood, resulting in re-victimization, emotional problems, and functional difficulties in multiple areas for vulnerable groups. Parents and other stakeholders are advised to familiarize themselves with what is going on with social media, understand how that may be impacting development in constructive and destructive ways, and take appropriate steps.