Contrary to popular belief, recent research suggests that social media is not replacing face-to-face contact with family and friends.
The study is published in Information, Communication & Society.
Fears of Social Displacement
For many years, people have worried that social media is replacing human contact. Supporters of this belief poked at the irony: despite its ability to connect people from all over the world, social media makes people more lonely. They cried out the idea of “social displacement” — the alienation of people from friends and family in favor of Facebook and Twitter.
A team of researchers from the University of Kansas, led by Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies at the university, set out to check if this commonly held belief is supported by facts.
“I study the intersection between digital media and everyday talk,” Hall told The University Network (TUN). “There is a very persistent idea that when new media become adopted, they are hurting our social relationships. Although there isn’t a lot of good research to support it, it is a widely held belief. I sought data to test it.”
Hall and two of his then-doctoral students — Mike Kearney and Chong Xing — conducted two tests, one long-term and one short-term.
“I’m trying to push back on the popular conception of how this works,” Hall said in a statement. “That’s not to say overuse of social media is good, but it’s not bad in the way people think it is.”
The team compared data sets from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY) from 2009 and 2011, tracking adults who were born during the ‘70s and ‘80s, right in the middle of Generation X.
“What was really convenient was the questions about social media use were asked right when Facebook was hitting its inflection point of adoption, and the main adopters in that period were Gen Xers,” Hall said in a statement.
Despite the common belief, the researchers did not find a correlation between decrease in people’s direct social interactions, such as visiting friends, talking on the phone and attending group meetings (other than religious groups), and increased use of social media.
“It was not the case at all that social media adoption or use had a consistent effect on their direct social interactions with people,” Hall said in a statement.
“What was interesting was that, during a time of really rapid adoption of social media, and really powerful changes in use, you didn’t see sudden declines in people’s direct social contact,” he continued. “If the social-displacement theory is correct, people should get out less and make fewer of those phone calls, and that just wasn’t the case.”
In the second study, which was designed by the researchers and carried out in 2015, the researchers collected their own data. After recruiting 116 people (split evenly between adults and college students), they texted the participants five times a day for five consecutive days, asking them each time about their use of social media and direct social contacts in the previous 10 minutes.
Again, the researchers found no relationship between people’s use of social media earlier in the day and their social interactions later that day. Just because people used social media earlier that day didn’t mean they were more likely to be alone later.
“Whether or not people are using social media throughout the day tells us nearly nothing about whether they are having face-to-face social interactions with close friends and family,” Hall told TUN. “They appear to be unrelated phenomena.”
Hall suspects that people may have shifted time spent previously on older forms of media, such as reading newspaper, browsing the internet, or watching TV, to social media, but that was not part of the study.
Hall is planning on studying whether abstaining from social media actually causes change in our daily well-being and loneliness.