When I come back to my Google Docs folder to begin my next column, I feel like I am coming back to speak with you, the reader. I say you as if I have any kind of consistent readers, but I do feel an emotional connection and sense of trust within the margins of this column. It’s as if I’m not just writing to the broader internet, but instead as though I’m ranting to a friend about a topic I care deeply about. Rather than thinking of this job as just about making my deadlines every two weeks, I am instead preparing — like a mother bird, nurturing — my ideas to take flight into the world, to hopefully be welcomed by sympathetic ears.
Many claim that Generation Z’s high levels of social media consumption have warped their perception of the real world. There is a wide range of arguments around this idea, from claiming Gen Z can’t put their phones down in a conversation or that they struggle to adequately perform in social situations since they only can communicate online. However, when it comes to face-to-face communication, 84% of Gen Z prefers face-to-face with a boss and 78% prefer face-to-face with a peer, illustrating that Gen Z has the capability as well as the desire for this face-to-face interaction. We’ve all heard the same opinions about how Gen Z is obsessed with their devices a million times, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of Gen Z habits changing anytime soon.
When referring to social media interaction, we are mainly referring to chatting, commenting or direct messaging; however, this kind of interaction only takes up 3.5% of our time spent using social media. When given the choice between having real human interaction, calling on the phone, emailing, using social media or having a video call, 42% of adults chose real human interaction, in stark contrast to the 2% of respondents who chose a social media interaction. There is a lack of connection on social media that only in-person relationships can provide; in-person interaction limits delayed responses, makes it less difficult to distinguish nonverbal cues and reduces the potential of an interaction taking you away from where you are in the present moment.
Even though people have differing opinions on the effectiveness of different forms of interaction, social media still drains your social battery. The hours put into these online conversations draws from hours that could be used to catch up with a friend for coffee. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar claims the part of the brain that controls cognition and language, the neocortex, is linked to the size of a cohesive social network. The research concluded that the ratio of the neocortex to the size of a cohesive social network is around 150 connections for a human. Exceed this “magic” number and your network is likely to break. How many people do you consider people who you have a connection with? In addition to the 150 connections rule, Dunbar also has a circle theory that determines how many people you can consider good friends, friends, meaningful contacts, acquaintances or a person you can recognize. Each connection is determined by the frequency of seeing that person and the frequency of your interactions. Therefore, an increased amount of social media usage reduces the hours we have to connect with each other and reduces the meaningfulness of our connection.
Dunbar’s claims beg the question: What significance do the thousands of internet connections we now have between Snapchat, Instagram, Tik Tok, etc. have? Being mutuals on social media doesn’t make two people friends. You may see small highlights of their lives often pop up on your feed, but you do not know them like you would a real friend. So why do the connections many of us feel with celebrities and online personalities often resemble a friendship? If the person posts authentic content that you heavily engage with, such as binging their “day in the life” YouTube videos, is that a high level of frequency of interaction?
With authenticity being a main value for Gen Z some content has come to include inner thoughts, struggles and desires — things a close friend may tell you. This is called parasocial interaction, or the one-sided relationship between media consumers and media personas. If you reference something your favorite character in a show, actor or online personality has referenced, or if you see them as a source of comfort, security or safety, this behavior is considered to be indicative of a parasocial interaction.
Given that I spend tens of hours a month writing for an audience, it makes sense that I’d feel a relationship with my column readers. I spend a high frequency of hours producing honest, written communication. I feel a sense of security when writing because I am exploring my own intellectual capabilities and thoughts as I write and seek responses from those who read my work. I often have to remind myself when typing down a rabbit hole that my work will be published to the entire internet, even though my closeness to my readers makes it feel like I am publishing to a small circle of friends.
Understanding how our processing of relationships has changed alongside the growth of social media is important in analyzing how our own habits align with our innate desires about interaction with others. Should we take into account the relevance of online friendships to better understand how we allocate our friendships? Are we spreading ourselves too thin with the time and effort we can devote to our relationships? Social media has created an increased pressure to be friends with everyone. With scientific evidence calculated by Dunbar of how much social interaction our brain can process, can we willingly override it knowing this statistic? Through understanding what kinds of relationships our brain allows us to hold, we can allocate our energy properly to focus on the relationships and connections that mean the most to us.
Gabby Rivas is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org