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The Effects of Social Media on Interpersonal Relationships

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Social media has become a completely ubiquitous phenomenon within modern society over the course of the last decade or so. This has usually been celebrated as a sign that people are able to remain more connected with each other than ever before; but in truth, the whole picture may be considerably more complicated than that. The purpose of this Ultius essay example is to critically explore the effects that social media has on interpersonal relationships.

Interpersonal Relationships and social media

The essay will begin with a basic definition of what social media is. Then, it will describe the obviously beneficial effects that social media does in fact have on interpersonal relationships. After this, though, the essay will shift into a consideration of the dark side of social media, or the way in which it actually undermines genuine interpersonal relationships. This will then be followed by a theoretical consideration that attempts to orient this understanding of social media into a broader sociological discussion.

Definition of social media

In broad terms, social media refers to any phone- or Internet-based application that can be used in order to engage in communication with other people across space and time. The most popular ones, such as Facebook and Twitter, clearly exist in order to serve this purpose. Other common ones, though, include Tumblr and Reddit; and indeed, any kind of blogging application or websites that allow users to interact with each other could be identified as a kind of social media. The defining feature of social media is that it enables a large number of people, potentially strangers, to communicate with each other in a streamlined way and, in doing so, it expands our understanding of communication.

Beneficial effects of social media

Given this definition of social media, it is clear enough that social media fundamentally exists in order to enhance interpersonal relationships. As Zakaria has put it, for example:

"Using something like Skype brings people closer when they can't always physically see each other. Texting people through Facebook or any other texting platform allows us to be in contract with anyone anywhere in the world, no matter how far they are away from us, at any point in time" (paragraph 3).

The scope of social media is thus global, and the technology opens up possibilities for communication that were almost literally unthinkable prior to its advent. It is now possible to keep in touch with friends and family, no matter how far one moves away from them; and especially through Facebook, it is also possible to find long lost persons from one's own past in an extremely easy and straightforward way. These can be understood as real gains for the sustenance of interpersonal relationships. 

Moreover, emerging social media platforms are beginning to focus not just on virtual interactions, but rather on getting people offline and into relationships in the real world. The dating platform HowAboutWe is one example of this. Likewise, DiBlasio (reporting two years ago) has discussed an application called Grubwithus, which was intended bring strangers together to share meals at actual restaurants.

So, social media has begun to focus not just on either supplementing existing relationships or sustaining virtual ones, but also on actually turning virtual relationships into relationships in the empirical world. This is an excellent example of how social media can be said to have a positive effect on interpersonal relationships: it can genuinely bring people together who may have otherwise not even been aware of each others' existences. Technology can thus clearly be made to serve the genuinely values of friendship and interpersonal connection. 

The dark side of social media

Thus far, it has been indicated that to an extent, social media can in fact be understood as enhancing interpersonal relationships; after all this is the very reason it exists in the first place. However, it must now be asserted that social media also has a significant dark side: it can not only bring people together, but also (and somewhat paradoxically) alienate people from each other.

Zakaria has provided a good example of how this works:

"You always see a bunch of friend groups hanging out together when each of them is caught up in their digital devices; they constantly want to check what everyone's tweeting, what they are doing, instead of talking to the friends they're sitting with, or holding conversation and engaging with each other" (paragraph 4).

In essence, the point here is that social media may cause people to become absent from their immediate situations, because people begin to invest significant amounts of their attention and energy into the abstract realm of virtual space. 

Chounard has made the same point in his own way:

"From morning to night, hyperconnected people never stop, never take a single moment to disconnect. They have no patience: they need to stay constantly occupied, constantly stimulated. Hyperconnectivity is the opiate of the 2.0 generation. It's a drug that cuts us off from reality, and prevents thought" (paragraphs 2-3).

In one sense, all these social media are immersed in interpersonal relationships. But that sense is a superficial one. In truth, an actual interpersonal relationship requires one to be present to one's friend; it requires one to be able (among other things) to have a face-to-face conversation with him, without becoming distracting by competing demands on one's attention. Social media users may be becoming increasingly incapable of this.

As they are always plugged in to the virtual world, they are never actually present within the actual world in which people really live. Psychologically, they are always elsewhere; they are always distant. 

Another way to frame the same matter is to suggest that there is in fact a potentially inverse relationship between the quantity of one's communications on the one hand, and the quality of those communications on the other. As Moe has written (paraphrasing Turkle):

"there are more and more opportunities to communicate at light speed. And if those messages are coming from everywhere and you feel compelled to answer them all, the content of your conversation will get dumbed down as a result, and the conversation with actual meaning—the kind of thing that bonds us as humans—will get chucked overboard" (paragraph 3).

In a sense, it can be suggested that people are beginning to psychologically spread themselves too thin: they are less and less capable of investing fully in one moment, experience, or relationship because of all the interpersonal stimuli that are competing for a hold of their attention. The result is not the enhancement but rather actually the deterioration of interpersonal relationships. 

In this context, it is perhaps a matter of little wonder that there has emerged a strong link between social media use and depression. As Konnikova has written:

"No one joins Facebook to be sad and lonely. But a new study from the University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross argues that that's exactly how it makes us feel" (paragraph 1).

At least in part, this must be because of the negative disjunction between expectation and reality, which makes one feel like a social "failure" of sorts. For example, one may get onto Facebook in order to improve one's interpersonal relationships, only to find out that no such improvements are actually occurring. Moreover, one may be under the false impression that everyone else is in fact achieving success in this regard.

This is a function of the fact that people only tend to publicly share the best things about themselves, while keeping darker things concealed. The upshot, essentially, would be the perception that everyone is having fun but oneself. Naturally, such a perception would only serve to further diminish the quality of one's interpersonal relationships. 

A Theoretical Perspective

A theoretical lens that can perhaps be used in order to elucidate the paradoxical negative effects of social media on interpersonal relationships is Guy Debord's theory of the spectacle. According to Debord, late modern society can be called a society of the spectacle: it is a world in which the image of things have become more real than those things themselves. This applies to social relations as well; in fact, it applies to social relations more than it does to anything else. As Debord has put it:

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images" (72).

It can suggested that social media contributes to exactly this kind of mediation. When one meets a person, for example, one may not actually "see" that person at all; rather, one may merely see the image one has constructed of that person, on the basis of one's knowledge of that person's virtual profile. 

In this context, when talking about the effects of social media on interpersonal relationships, it would perhaps be worthwhile to draw a line between the physical and psychological dimensions. At the strictly physical level, it is true that social media can produce connections between people who may otherwise have not met and/or remained in touch; this is an empirical fact about the beneficial effects of social media.

On the other hand, however, it is also necessary to consider the psychological dimension of the issue at hand. And in particular, it is necessary to consider the way in which social media may alienate a given person from his own experiences of reality. In the final analysis, it can be said that it matters little whether people are able to physically remain in touch with each other, if they can only do so at the expense of being psychologically alienated from each other.

Social media, for example, may be able to bring together a group of friends. But this benefit is nullified, insofar as those friends will merely remain lost in their own virtual worlds, even when they are "together" in the real world. 

Finally, it is worth returning to the relationship between social media use and depression within the context of Debord's theoretical framework. As Durlofsky has written:

"Although social media relationships can have a positive effect on us emotionally, numerous studies have been conducted linking social networking to depression, social isolation, eliciting feelings of envy, insecurity and poor self esteem."

Again, this could be almost wholly attributed to the priority of image over reality that Debord holds to be the defining feature of the society of the spectacle. Ultimately, this has to do with the fact that whereas one is directly aware of one's own psychological state, all one can see of others through social media are the images that people choose to share about themselves with the public. So, if a person were to compare the other person's idealized image with one's own messy reality, the logical result would be depression and a general feeling of alienation from other people. This, of course, would clearly not be conducive to the creation or sustenance of meaningful interpersonal relationships.   


In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of the effects of social media on interpersonal relationships. The present essay has acknowledged that at least to an extent, social media is surely successful at its basic purpose of enhancing relationships. The present essay has also made the important point, however, that this benefit may well be counterbalanced by the negative effects that social media has on interpersonal relationship.

In general, these negative effects emerge from the fact that social media can easily cause people to become absent from themselves, and to take images of the world more seriously than their own experiences of the world. This can catalyze a profound sense of alienation and depression that is clearly not compatible with the cultivation of healthy relationships. Social media thus has potentials for good, but only if it is used in a careful, intentional, and morally grounded fashion.

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Works Cited

Chouinard, Jean-Sébastien. "When Hyperconnectivity Leads to Social Alienation." Adviso, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. <http://www.adviso.ca/en/blog/2013/02/20/hyperconnectivite-reclusion-sociale-2/>. 

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Oakland: AK Press, 2008. Print. 

DiBlasio, Natalie. "Social Media Bring People Together—In the Real World." USA Today. 20 Jan. 2013. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. < http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/01/19/internet-grub-social-networking/1846299/>. 

Durlofsky, Paula. "Can Too Much Social Media Cause Depression?" Mainline Today. Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. <http://www.mainlinetoday.com/Blogs/Thinking-Forward/February-2014/Can-Too-Much-Social-Media-Cause-Depression/>. 

Konnikova, Maria. "How Facebook Makes People Unhappy." New Yorker. 10 Sep. 2015. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/how-facebook-makes-us- unhappy>. 

Moe, John. "Does Technology Alienate Us from Each Other?" Marketplace. 25 Jan. 2011. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. <http://www.marketplace.org/topics/tech/does-technology-alienate-us-each- other>. 

Zakaria, Fatma. "Does Social Media Bring Us Closer Together or Further Apart?" Social Clinic, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 28 Jul. 2015. <http://www.thesocialclinic.com/does-social-media- bring-us-closer-together-or-further-apart/>.



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Ultius, Inc. "The Effects of Social Media on Interpersonal Relationships." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. July 29, 2015 https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/the-effects-of-social-media-on-interpersonal-relationships.html.

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