"Social media has created an even bigger disparity between the way you are and the way people think you are…people are not pursuing happiness …they’re pursuing an attractive picture.” So said an 18-year-old girl named Rachel in the enlightening book by Nancy Jo Sales, author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, (Knopf, 2016)
This young girl’s comment highlights some of the very real problems that many people have identified about social media. It has created an alternate world with different goals and different rules which we are only beginning to understand, much less control. Nowhere are the discrepancies more immediate than in the definition of intimacy and genuine love. Yet those very dimensions, illusive as they may be to define, lie at the heart of what makes us human. Human beings are hard-wired to connect. It is in the cradle of human love that we discover as infants and children the social fabric that allows us to function in the civilized world. It is in that crucial medium that we learn ethics and values and develop a sense of our own being—our personhood.
The rich smorgasbord of stimuli that await us on social media provides little in the way of intimacy and a quote from a 15-year-old girl dismisses love out of hand. “Love is just a word, it has no meaning,” says Madeline. “It’s very rare you will ever find someone who really likes you for who you are…And it doesn’t matter what you look like, if you have a big butt or whatever. Rarely if ever do you find someone who really cares.” (American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers) In her interviews with teenage girls, Sales reports descriptions of a “hookup” culture in which the goal is to see who can care the least. Young males appear to win the contest but both men and women have negative feelings about their casual encounters and subsequent anxiety and depression about relationships.
It is still early to assign blame in this cultural juggernaut that we call the social media but at this juncture it appears that intimacy and love and accompanying long-term relationships may be its casualties. In my mind it raises questions such as the following: Will the sweet agony of first love become a thing of the past? Will we never experience the anguish of genuine heartbreak in our journey toward adulthood? Will women and girls whose egos have been battered about on the Internet recover enough to sustain long-term relationships? If the culture of casual encounters renders them numb to their own emotions, will they be able to retain the sensitivity they will need as mothers–attentive to the feelings of the small human beings in their charge? Will young men be able to re-focus their attention from outward physical appearance and sexually stimulating gratification to appreciate the needs of women who will be their day-to-day companions in the experience of what we might call “real” life?
Dire predictions have always been made about the “younger” generation but human beings are remarkably adaptable and somehow we have survived. Perhaps we will look back and laugh at our concerns about social media as yet another technological advance brings with it sweeping changes beyond our comprehension. Still I think it is worthwhile to consider that while the Internet with all of its accoutrements greatly enhance our human capabilities, it may also change forever what it means to be human.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.