What are the effects of social media in the 2010s?

Nathan de la Cerda | Multimedia Journalist

By Tyler Bui and Matthew Muir | Staff Writers

The rise of social media and smartphones during the 2010s has led to a shift in the way people interact with one another. These technologies, which were still in their early years a decade ago, have become ubiquitous parts of our daily lives, and have had widespread effects on human behavior in the process.

Baylor marketing professor Dr. James Roberts has published research on the effects of social media and smartphones on their users. Roberts said the way we interact has changed with these new technologies—we rely on technology to communicate rather than speaking face to face.

“It has really changed—it’s what we call computer-mediated communication,” Roberts said. “We’re not talking as much face-to-face as we did… we’re taking ourselves out of the immediate social environment to be social on social media. So it has changed dramatically.”

In “secluding” themselves to be active on social media, Roberts said users are becoming worse at communicating in the real world, and that younger generations are no longer able to read basic social cues, which can be lost through social media.

“We’ve lost and we are losing the ability to read social cues in person, like body language and tone,” Roberts said. “All that stuff is pretty much lost on social media. We’re becoming less adept at being able to interact socially because we just aren’t getting as much experience.”

Roberts said that many people think of communicating through technology as equivalent to face-to face-interaction.

“It offers so much, and I think in a way, it makes relationships easier,” Roberts said. “It makes it easier to send a text and think you’re interacting. You are at some level, but it’s just a lot less messy on social media.”

While relationships maintained through social media may seem easier, Roberts said these relationships are weaker than those built on genuine interaction.

Robert Darden, a journalism professor at Baylor, said studies show social media use is tied to having fewer close friends.

“[Studies] are showing that while you have ‘thousands of friends,’ with the reliance on Facebook instead of personal interactions, along with texting and Instagram, you actually have fewer very close friends,” Darden said. “People, instead of talking to their neighbors during their classes or at lunch, default back to the same group of friends… mindlessly [searching] for that little hit of dopamine that scrolling through your Facebook and Instagram friends gives you.”

Compounding this problem is the concurrent rise of smartphones. With bona fide computers in our pockets, social media is always at arms-length.

“Clearly we use our phones for a lot of things, but most frequently or most of the time we do use—which is amazing how much time we spend on our phone— most of it is on social media,” Roberts said. “That has shifted how we relate, how we interact with people from more face-to-face, or at least talking, to texting and posting.”

Roberts said being drawn away from face-to-face interactions by smartphones is a common problem, and that the phenomenon of “phubbing,” or phone snubbing, has become an obstacle to personal interaction.

“We don’t give anyone our undivided attention anymore, and what our research tells us, when we feel that the person we’re talking to isn’t fully engaged, isn’t present for us… we report less connection with them,” Roberts said. “We report less satisfaction with that relationship, and we report less desire to want to continue that relationship.”

Roberts said smartphones’ portability and versatility are factors that lead to the devices’ addictive nature.

“It occurs gradually— we first start out, ‘Oh this is nice’ and we use it, and as we slowly use it, gradually it becomes something we can’t live without,” Roberts said. “We can take it wherever we want, and it can do so many things that it has just taken off, and we’re just obsessed.”

Addiction is not an overstatement— Roberts said a survey of Baylor students showed they spend a significant portion of their day on their phones.

“When we first got those results, this is about 2014, 2015, I [said], ‘That’s got to be a mistake; no one is on their phone that much,’” Roberts said. “It has only increased since then, if not stabilized, but [Baylor students spent] about eight and a half hours a day on [their] phones.”

While studies like this offer a glimpse into the effect smartphones and social media have already had, Darden said conclusive, long-term scientific studies are still years or decades away.

“We’re past the sea change, and we’re into the application and the impact on an entire generation worldwide,” Darden said. “And it’s scary because we don’t really know. I don’t think social scientists will tell you they have a whole lot of definite answers on what that means yet. I don’t.”