Technology’s Impact on Social Relationships—The Data May Surprise You!

Sep 26, 2011 by Tom Dellner

My relationship with technology and social media is a little like my relationship with fast food. I enjoy it immensely and find it semi-addictive, but deep down, I wonder what it’s doing to me.

Our collective cultural embrace of the Internet, social media, and the litany of mobile devices represents a massive shift in human behavior. Family members text one another from different rooms in the same house. We move about with ear buds in our ears or our thumbs working a mobile keyboard—or both. At any public place with an Internet connection, we sit by ourselves, digesting media along with our coffee and scones, or engaging in communication with perhaps thousands of friends or connections—just not the person seated across the table.

This has to be doing something to us, right? It must have some sort of impact on family and other relationships, correct? If you’re like me, you have an uneasy feeling that whatever the impact is, it’s probably not good.

Dr. Keith Hampton
Dr. Keith Hampton

Dr. Keith Hampton has some of the same questions and concerns. But he articulates them far better—and he also knows the answers. At the 2011 AAMFT Annual Conference, Dr. Hampton—a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the principle author of the Pew Research study “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives”—delivered a fascinating presentation titled “Technology in Family and Social Relations: The Good, the Bad, and the Data.”

Here’s how Dr. Hampton articulated our concerns about technology and relationships: we’re afraid that people are becoming more and more isolated as they increasingly engage with their computers and mobile devices. We’re worried that we are substituting these activities for traditional social behaviors and that our real-life social networks are shrinking and becoming less diverse as we cluster into and communicate with groups of trusted, like-minded others. We wonder if our relationships will lose intimacy as we rely more on technology-driven communication and less on face-to-face conversation.

As noted above, Dr. Hampton has been working closely with the Pew Research Center on its Internet and American Life Project. He says that, while the digital age is still relatively new and its impact on relationships is still evolving, the current data is both consistent and surprising. As it turns out, the research does indicate that digital technologies are changing the nature of community and the structure of relationships, but not in the negative ways outlined above.

I’ll be conducting an in-depth interview with Dr. Hampton soon, but here’s a quick summary of what his research has revealed: It’s true that today people report having fewer close relationships or confidants. However, there’s no evidence establishing a connection between technology use and the decrease in the size of our core networks. In fact, users of the Internet and mobile devices tend to report more close relationships as well as more diversity within these close relationships than non-users. And avid Facebook users reported 10 percent more close ties than average Internet users.

Looking beyond the groups of closest confidants, researchers have found that Internet and technology users tend to have more social ties in what they term the “parochial realm” (e.g., relationships like those formed around neighborhoods, the workplace, churches, volunteer organizations, clubs, etc.) than those who don’t engage with the Internet and technology. Internet and Facebook users also say they receive higher levels of social support from their friends, as compared to those who don’t use this technology. And there’s no indication that heavy Internet users participate in fewer traditional, face-to-face social activities—in fact, they seem to do so at a greater rate.

Dr. Hampton cautions that, as I noted above, the social and relational implications of technology use are still evolving and is quick to note that the context of the surveys may have impacted the data. However, the research suggests that users of technology tend to have more social relationships and that these relationships are more supportive and more diverse.

So for now, we can return to our Facebook accounts, guilt free.




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