There are 1 billion people on Facebook, which is triple the population of the United States. But unlike our offline communities, social interaction and the way we derive meaning on the site is condensed down to photos and text. This is the new normal, but is it good for us, and can we compare online networks to the real offline equivalent of social support?
It’s a question that psychologists should be eager to delve into. These are the technologies which define our work and our broader lives, so it’s vital that we get a handle on the effects that they have.
Quantitative data from a new study has shown that young adults who spend a lot of time on Facebook are likely to have lower well-being and life satisfaction over time, compared to those who don’t use the site as much.
The research summarises its findings like this:
“The human need for social connection is well established, as are the benefits that people derive from such connections. On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling such needs by allowing people to instantly connect. Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive “offline” social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults—it may undermine it.
We need more research looking into this issue, but it's important to look at the lessons that we can glean from our current knowledge. As our work and social lives increasingly move online, it’s clear that too much exposure to online social networks, specifically those which allow the kind of passive browsing of other people’s lives, just isn’t the same as the connections that we can make with our colleagues and friends in person.
There are parallels in the workplace. I’ve written before about the effects of a study which encouraged office workers to use no email for a certain period of time, and not only the bonding effect that it has on staff, but also the increase in efficiency that it can generate. Even the biggest technology firms recognise the need to provide opportunities for their staff to socialise, be creative and network in person – the Apple and Facebook campuses, for example, are designed with this very human need in mind. Not every business has the budget to offer free food and fantastic spaces for staff to network and meet in, but there all small things which managers and leaders can encourage to ensure we break from online-only communication. Getting out of the office for meetings can break the online addiction, for example. Managers should think about how often they encourage the kind of social interaction in their teams that supports well-being and resilience – it isn’t the cuddly side of management, but something which is essential and can be facilitated by leaders who are connected to their staff and make time for it.
This is just the beginning for our understanding of the social and psychological effects on new technologies. We are predicted to have the first Generation Y CEO in post by 2016, at a FTSE350 company, and it will only accelerate our adoption on new working practices. It’s great progress that brings many business benefits, primary among them the flexibility technology affords, but we shouldn’t forget the need for ‘actual spoken word’ and the social contact which we all need, in work and life.
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Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.
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