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Jed Diamond, Ph.D. has been a marriage and family counselor for the last 45 years. He is the author of 8 books, including Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, Male Menopause, The Irritable Male Syndrome, and Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome (May, 2010). He offers counseling to men, women, and couples in his office in California or by phone with people throughout the U.S. and around the world. To receive a Free E-book on Men’s Health and a free subscription to Jed’s e-newsletter go to www.MenAlive.com. If you are looking for an expert counselor to help with relationship issues, write Jed@MenAlive.com. The rap on social media has been that it is superficial and the more time people spend on-line, the less time they spend interacting in the “real” world with “real” people. However, recent research indicates that this isn’t true. Myth #1: Social relationships are failing. The Pew Internet and American Life Project’s 2007 report found that social relationships and the sense of community are not “fading away in America” but growing, although in non-traditional ways. Social affiliations are increasingly shifting from extended family relationships and connections in neighborhood-based organizations to “social networks,” bringing people of like-minded interests that transcend geography. Myth #2: Social media undermines our core relationships. The Pew survey asked people about how their Internet involvement affected both their core ties and significant ties. Core ties are with people to whom one has close, intimate relationships, while significant ties were defined as those with people to whom one is somewhat closely connected. Contrary to the concerns of critics, the more contact individuals had by email, the more in-person and phone contact they had, suggesting that “Americans are probably more in contact with members of their communities and social networks than before the advent of the internet.” Myth #3: Face-to-Face social networks are in decline. A total of 32 percent of the respondents in the Pew survey reported that engagement on the Internet increased the size of their social networks while only 3 percent said it decreased them. Overall, Internet users boast “somewhat larger social networks than non-users. Myth #4: Internet networks undermine social capital. Social capital is people helping one another. Traditionally this has been the role of churches and fraternal organizations. Increased Internet use assists users in maintaining existing social ties, often strengthening them, while helping users forge new social ties. It has not, as some critics had previously warned, been at the expense of significant social ties. In fact, additional time spent online in community reduced the time spend on unsocial activities like T.V. Myth #5: Text messaging encourages superficial friendships. The survey found that more frequent communications via Internet text messaging encourages the desire to spend more time face-to-face. Researchers found that the reason lies not only in the frequency of staying in contact but also the nature of the medium and the way it is used. Text messaging, they found, requires a more careful crafting of communications than telephone or face-to-face communications and, messaging is often done at home, often late at night, and therefore people often share more intimate feelings. Three in ten teens, for instance, say “that they are more honest when they talk with friends on line.” Myth #6: Internet interaction fosters false selves.
One of the main criticisms of Internet friendships is that they are false. We can pretend to be anyone we want and as a result we may connect on-line, but in a dishonest way. We’ve all heard the stories of sexual predators pretending to be friends or older men pretending to be teen-age boys. Although there is certainly an opportunity for unscrupulous people to be able to hide behind their Internet Avatar, in the big scheme of the Internet, that is rare. Years ago MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle suggested, on the basis of her early pioneering work, that the relative anonymity afforded by cyperspace encouraged people to experiment with other aspects of their selves by taking on personas and roles that one might feel less comfortable exploring in real-time social encounters. Myth #7: Social media encourages people to lose connection with their true selves. Critics maintain that social media creates an artificial world where humans disappear and mythic figures take their place. However, research indicates that the medium may, in fact, help people to bring out their true selves. Laboratory experiments conducted by social scientist Katelyn McKenna and her colleagues have shown that “the relative anonymity of Internet interactions greatly reduces the risks” of personal disclosures, “especially about intimate aspects of the self, because one can share one’s inner beliefs and emotional reactions with much less fear of disapproval and sanction.” McKenna, a New York University psychology professor, concluded: “The more people express facets of the self on the Internet that they cannot or do not express in other areas of life, the more likely they are to form strong attachments to those they meet on the Internet.” What do you think? Have your friendships improved or deteriorated since getting involved in social media? I look forward to your responses. Note them here or connect with me on my website at www.MenAlive.com. I’m indebted to Jeremy Rifkin for information in this article and described in his book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.