Social media doesn't affect real relationships, study finds

Social media doesn't affect real-life relationships, a new study finds.
Social media doesn't affect real-life relationships, a new study finds. Photo: Shutterstock

Does too much time with Facebook "friends" result in less time with the people who mean the most? The impact of all that time spent scrolling the feeds of our Facebook "friends" on real-word relationships has been a lingering concern for some time. But is there really cause for concern?

Well, for the social media addicts out there, some new findings bring good news. Two studies, published in the journal Information, Communication & Society found no evidence for "social displacement", or the idea that time spent on Instagram and Twitter alienates people from close friends and family.

"I'm trying to push back on the popular conception of how this works," said lead author Jeffrey Hall."That's not to say overuse of social media is good, but it's not bad in the way people think it is."

Hall and his colleagues examined data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth for a correlation between a decrease in contact IRL and increased use of social media. 

They found no such link.

"It was not the case at all that social media adoption or use had a consistent effect on their direct social interactions with people," Hall said. "What was interesting was that, during a time of really rapid adoption of social media, and really powerful changes in use, you didn't see sudden declines in people's direct social contact."

If the social-displacement hypothesis was correct, Hall says, we should be seeing people getting out and about less and making fewer phone calls - a phenomenon his team simply did not observe.

Their second study went beyond correlations for a more detailed exploration of the link between social media use and real-life social interaction. Hall and his colleagues recruited 116 adults, texting them five times a day for five days in row. The texts asked participants how much time they'd spent on social media, (passive use rather than active use like chatting) and how much direct social contact they'd had in the ten minutes prior.

And the results were surprising.

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"What we found was that people's use of social media had no relationship to who they were talking to later that day and what medium they were using to talk to people later that day," Hall says, adding that social media users were not experiencing social displacement.

"If they used social media earlier in the day, they were not more likely to be alone later."

Hall's study isn't the first to question the displacement effect. And yet, he notes, the theory is "stubbornly resistant to debunking".

Last year, a large-scale study published in New Media and Society, also examined the proposal that social media use "erodes our strong ties" by increasing the number of social interactions we have, but decreasing their depth. What the researchers found, however, was quite the opposite.

"Frequent social media use seems to be associated with larger and more dynamic strong-tie networks," they wrote in their paper, noting that their findings suggested that "the social consequences of the rise of social media may not be as drastic as sometimes assumed."