social media and the future of friendship

Matt commented at length on an earlier post about the changing nature of friendship in the face of social media. He points out this Guardian article about the impact that video games and social media sites may have on children’s brains.

I think there are two separate discussions to have here: one on the topic of “friendship”, and another on brain development. The Guardian quotes sound tentative: Professor Greenfield talks about brain development with some authority, but lacks the same confidence when talking about social networking. I would certainly say that if your only, or even your primary relationships are skewed towards being online-only, then you are missing out on a rich kind of interaction that you should be pursuing – especially in childhood.

Different sites have different terms for their participants and relationships. With twitter, there are Friends (people you follow) and Followers (people who follow you). In LinkedIn, there are “connections”. Myspace and Facebook both use the term “friends”, while YouTube has “users”.

There are certainly problems in using terms like “friend” to describe your circle of contacts on social networks, and it can blur the line between close friends and acquaintance.

People my age have grown up expecting to be able to phone their friends, not just to go over to their houses to talk to them. The arrival of an affordable mobile phone meant that the possibility of being interrupted was always around: even when spending time with friends, family or loved ones.

But what if you’ve grown up with social networks always being around? Is it possible for millennials to form friendships without the constant buzz of their social networks in the background? Perhaps not.

I know from experience that once you’re used to the immediacy of being involved in an online community, it’s hard to disconnect. Does it affect brain development? I think the verdict is still out. Does it make it harder to concentrate on complex ideas? Almost certainly.

Part of involving yourself in social networks, just like with mobile phones, is to have the discipline to turn them off from time to time, and to reconnect with people, and with deeper thinking.

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