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2: Social Media and Interpersonal Communication

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Student Taking Photo of the Test Paper  (CC0; Rodney Productions via Pexels)

    It seems there’s always talk nowadays about work-life balance. There are articles in magazines for those dealing with homemaking to serious business journals, to say nothing to discussions on daytime “couch” talk shows. This is relatively new; 30 or so years ago there was never talk of work-life balance.

    To be sure, there would be occasional mentions of the “killer” workload of hospital residents or associates in Wall Street law firms. But for most people, life was simple: You went to work in an office or factory, and when your time was up that day, you could put work out of your mind while you went home. No more.

    What changed? Two words: Social media. In this chapter, we’ll discuss the impact of social media on communication and especially interpersonal communication.

    * * *

    Your use of social media is probably different than your instructor’s, but nearly everyone uses social media in one form or another. Is social media good for society or bad? How does it affect interpersonal communication? All too often, if you go to a restaurant, you don’t see people talking to each other, but rather with their faces in their cellphones as they shovel food in their mouths.

    “There has been a shift in the way we communicate; rather than face-to-face interaction,
    we’re tending to prefer mediated communication,” Paul Booth, Ph.D., an assistant professor of
    media and cinema studies in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago says. “We’d rather e-mail than meet; we’d rather text than talk on the phone.”

    There’s no question that social media has been beneficial in some circumstances. Until very recently, when a military member was deployed, it was very hard for friends and family to keep in touch with him. They typically had two choices: mail, which could take weeks to read their loved one, or phone calls, which were very limited in terms of length and availability. Today, of course, Spouses and partners report they derive a great deal of comfort being able to contact their service member online whenever they want.

    "Usually we just Skype–that is probably the biggest tool deployed families have. Skype has probably saved marriages and families. It takes away so much separation." –Air Force spouse

    "My husband got to see our daughter crawl for her first time by chance–she was on the floor in the background while video chatting and she started crawling. He got to see her walk for the first time (for him) while on video chat, too." –Army spouse

    (, 2022)

    Not only has social media changed relationships between military members and their friends and family, it has also changed relationships among civilians who are separated by distance. An executive attending a West Coast conference, for instance, can still keep in touch with his wife and children. If some big event should happen, such as a baby’s first steps, those can be filmed with a cellphone and shared, regardless of where he is; as well as Facebook or similar platforms. Likewise, the fiancé of a friend of my daughter is a medical resident in Maine, while he is in Maryland. They stay in touch via social media.

    What are the differences between mediated and face-to-face communication? In communication studies, when we talk about something being “mediated,” we mean it is transmitted via media – newspapers, radio/TV, YouTube, Facetime, TikTok, etc. Both mediated and face-to-face messages have the same goals, similar processes, and similar principles. Generally, mediated messages are leaner, more to-the-point. Sometimes they are synchronous – both parties are “on” at the same time, such as a Zoom or Facetime call. And they are very permanent, and sometimes even public when you don’t want them to be. And sometimes the fact they are permanent leads to disastrous consequences. Take a look at this video:

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): Harvard Revokes At Least 10 Acceptances Over Offensive Postings

    What percentage of college admissions officers say they check social media?

    It’s not just college admissions officers. A 2020 Harris Poll survey found 71% of those who make hiring decisions in the U.S. said looking at social media profiles is an effective screening tool. And 55% said they have found content that caused them to turn down an applicant. The Harris Poll survey also found that 21% of hiring decision-makers said they aren’t likely to consider a candidate who isn’t online (Express Employment Professionals, 2020).

    Check your social media pages now, and if there’s anything problematic, remove it.

    So, there’s no doubt social media has been a real plus. But, as with nearly everything, there are downsides. When we communicate through social media, we tend to trust people more, so we share more about ourselves. Second, as The Wall Street Journal demonstrated with its “Facebook Files” project, teenage girls have been particularly susceptible to abuse on some social media platforms, and Facebook has been linked to sex trafficking. Third, our social connections aren’t strengthened as much as when they are face-to-face, so we don’t build the same deep connections. Fourth, we tend to follow and interact with people who agree with our points of view, so we don’t get the same diversity of opinions we might have in face-to-face conversations with neighbors or around the water cooler at work.

    Among the negative effects of social media is cyberbullying, which was detailed in the “Facebook Files” series. One researcher, for instance, believes the actions that trigger a bad online relationship likely are the same ones that trigger a bad relationship in real life – only the modality has changed. Discussing cyberbullying, he acknowledges that “the difference is more – more contact, more communication and in a more public manner.” Indeed, it’s not just “more,” but it’s also unrelenting, and it doesn’t just stay in one space but can follow the child home. One study (Bussey, 2015) examined the association between moral disengagement and cyberbullying and found high levels of moral disengagement among students who engage in cyberbullying. This led the authors to suggest that reducing cyberbullying will involve more than policies that sanction such behavior. Rather, factors that reduce the use of moral disengagement processes need to be promoted.

    Another problem with social media is that it may put your school’s reputation at risk, as illustrated by the Harvard situation cited above. Or it may make your organization look bad. Earlier we discussed the positive benefits of social media for military families. But social media can also have very negative implications for the military.

    Watch this video and be prepared to share your opinions about the concerns voiced by Master Sgt. Moerk.

    Watch this video on how one post can impact your life, how one post can ruin your life, or how one post can make your life.

    Another concern is communication overload – learning how to handle and make sense of the ever-increasing amount of information we have. To take just one example, I have six email accounts, and on my main account I get at least 500 emails a day. To be sure, Gmail is helpful – it allocates my email into four categories: Primary, Social, Promotions, and Forums. I check two accounts at least once a day -- my main account at least once a day, an email account for Prince George’s Community College, where I teach. On my cell phone, I have a podcast app, and that app is set to download each day at least six different podcasts.

    At home, I may be watching TV as I scroll through my email or read a newspaper (in print or online!) or go through my mail. This is communication overload. We can define communication overload as being flooded with just too many emails, phone calls, texts, instant messages, and social media updates.

    Be prepared to discuss in class whether you are dealing with communication overload, and if so, how you deal with it.

    But, you may say, “I’m a great multitasker. I can handle all that.” Maybe. But what do we mean by multitasking? One common definition is the cognitive ability to perform “multiple task goals in the same time period by engaging in frequent switches between individual task.” Other researchers call it “dual tasking” or “task switching.” People with high intelligence appear to be better able to multitask. But at least one study of college students in a classroom setting found clear decreases in performance when trying to attend to two tasks at the same time. Another study showed the average college student sends 97 text messages a day, 71 of them while doing homework. Research has shown that attempting to attend to or process more than one task at a time overloads the capacity of the human information-processing study. (Jumco, 2012)

    A few weeks ago, my computer started acting weird. It took a long time to load messages on the internet or to attach a document to an email. It didn’t make any difference what browser I used, I kept getting messages about “network malfunction.” So, I called my internet service provider, and the ISP’s technician replaced everything except the fiber optic cable. And still we had problems. Then I called my computer guru in California. He ran several tests and discovered my hard drive was at 100%, which is why I was having so much trouble. He then performed some magic and reported by hard drive is now at 2%. The computer is working perfectly. Our brains are gigantic computers, and too much information can cause our performance to degrade just as badly as my computer’s hard drive when it was overloaded. In another study, the authors conclude that when performance is measured based upon productivity, “medium multitaskers perform significantly better than both high- and low-multitaskers. However, if performance is measured by accuracy of results, . . . increased levels of multitasking lead to a significant loss in accuracy.” (Adler, Benbunan-Fich, 2012).

    One of the reasons so many students and others felt extremely stressed during Covid19 was the increased use of online tools. That gave rise to cognitive overload, a state in which informational input exceeds cognitive capacities. But it wasn’t just students: Many office workers had similar experiences. Feeling overloaded by the use of digital tools can result in ineffective information processing, confusion, loss of control, psychological stress, and depressive symptoms.

    How to reduce stress while working? One answer has been digital detox. Digital detox involves various strategies, including self-control enhancement, switching off notifications, and powering off electronic devices at a certain time in the evening, which seem to improve sleep quality and quantity and, thus, increase work productivity the following day (Lanaj, Johnson, & Barnes, 2014). The use of digital detox apps (e.g., apps supporting users to monitor and limit their smartphone time) can also prevent the potentially harmful effects of social networking sites on well-being among young people (Schmuck, 2020). Other studies have found that answering emails only at a predefined time during the day may reduce stress while working (Kushlev & Dunn, 2015). Taken together, these findings indicate that digital detox strategies may have an overall positive impact on feelings of well-being. (Schmitt, Breuer & Wulf, 2021)

    One important finding in Schmitt, Breur & Wulf’s research is that “people reporting an increased use of text-based tools in the context of telework also reported increased perceptions of feeling overloaded, while those reporting increased use of videoconferencing tools did not.” They speculated that one reason for this may be that videoconferencing is synchronous, meaning the employees communicate at a time that is scheduled, while text-based tools are asynchronous and may lead to the experience that while working on one task, other tasks accumulate that cannot be immediately addressed or that key communication by email or chat may be missed.

    They speculated another reason why videoconferencing is less stressful: nonverbal communication. We’ll cover nonverbal communication in Chapter 6, but during a video conference you not only hear the words spoken but also see facial expressions and gestures and can observe paraverbal information (intonation, prosody).

    In short, social media has several impacts on us: It can let us keep in touch with people far away, it can keep us up-to-date on news or other matters of interest. But social media also has some serious negatives, including making it easy for people to engage in cyberbullying and human trafficking. For a detailed discussion of how one of the most popular internet platforms, Facebook, knew about cyberbullying and human trafficking linked to it but did nothing, read The Wall Street Journal’s ebook, “The Facebook Files,”

    (To access the eBook requires a WSJ student subscription. If you don’t have a student subscription, listen to the podcast and read the transcript – although I think at $4 a month, the student subscription is well worth the money. Not only does the WSJ run several articles a week that are directly relevant to communication studies, but you can also get free eBooks and audiobooks from a major publisher, but also other free stuff, offers and drawings.)

    Research and write a 500-word essay on how you use social media.

    Read/listen to the Facebook Files and write a 500-word essay on the benefits and dangers of social media.

    Another consequence of mediated interpersonal communication is that it is hyperpersonal, meaning that senders have a greater opportunity to optimize their self-presentation. One result is that receivers have “an idealized perception of the sender.” One study found that users of mediated communication feel more satisfaction in an online relationship since the communication is enhanced and there are fewer clues on which to base the relationship. Another study found that in online dating, which is hyperpersonal communication, the rate of self-disclosure is accelerated. (Anderson and Emmers-Sommer, 2006). Because people who do online dating learn more about their potential partner sooner, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that marriage breakups were reported in about 6% of people who met online from 2005-2012, compared with 7.6% of people who met offline. The study also found that online daters were happier in their marriages than those who met offline. (Cacioppo, et al, 2012).

    From this we can conclude that mediated interpersonal communication has several benefits: More opportunities to develop relationships, sustaining and enriching relationships (think about military members on deployment, or college students away from their significant other), and social support. At the same time, mediated communication can be superficial, can result in social isolation, can result in deception and even stalking, harassment, and cyberbullying.

    My Aunt Anne started using social media including emails and Facebook when she was in her 90s. It used to be thought that age impacted one’s use of social media, but if that ever was the case, it is no longer. Senior citizens are quick to grasp that social media enables them to stay in touch with their children and grandchildren. Still, which social media platforms a person uses does appear to be influenced by their age. Teenagers are less likely to use Facebook than TikTok, for instance, while professionals are more likely to use LinkedIn every day than they are to use Facebook.

    Another influence on mediated communication appears to be gender. Women are more likely to use personal pronouns, hedge phrases, and emotional words, while men are more likely to use large words, nouns, swear words, and object references.

    Being a competent communicator in all forums should be an important personal goal. How can we be competent communicators in social media? Keeping our tone civil is essential, as is respecting others' needs and not butting into conversations.

    Even more important is protecting yourself. A student at the University of Michigan shared on a subreddit that he was facing disciplinary action because he had posted his code on Github and two separate students had used that to gain access to exams. Concordia University in Canada (2022) offers these 10 tips:

    1. Be aware of what’s public. Google yourself regularly. Even better, create a Google Alert in your name.

    2. Check your privacy settings often. They change all the time.

    3. Don’t accept friend requests from strangers. Only accept friend requests from people you know on Snapchat, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I submitted a friend request on Facebook, my friend reached out by email to verify that it was I.

    4. Be careful when sharing your location. If you tell everyone you’re away on vacation, you may also be telling burglars you’re on vacation.

    5. Review your tags.

    6. Don’t share personal information online. That includes your phone number, home address, email address, or student ID number.

    7. Don’t share anything you don’t want your grandmother to see. Assume that once you post it, it’s online forever.

    8. Be aware of phishing scams. Don’t open suspicious emails or other messages. Don’t reply to them. Don’t click on links in the communication, and above all don’t provide your phone number, email address, or any other information on a web page to which you may be directed.

    9. Keep an eye on your passwords.”

    a. A good password should contain a few capital letters, numbers, and a symbol.

    b. Don’t share your passwords and be sure to change them regularly. Also, make sure you have a password lock on your phone. Use apps like “Find My iPhone”(opens in new window) to protect the data on your phone should it be lost or stolen.

    c. Always opt for two-way authentication whenever it’s available (i.e. when you need your username/password along with a piece of information that only you know, to log into a site).

    d. Opt for email notifications for every log-in. Check third-party apps regularly to see which has automatic access to your social media accounts. De-authorize ones you’re no longer using.

    10. Check community guidelines on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and others.


    Adler, R.F. & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance.

    Anderson, Traci L.; Emmers-Sommer, Tara M. (July 2006). "Predictors of Relationship Satisfaction in Online Romantic Relationships". Communication Studies. 57 (2): 153–172. doi:10.1080/10510970600666834.

    Bussey, K., Fitzpatrick, S. & Raman, A. (2015) The role of moral disengagement and self-efficacy in cyberbullying, Journal of School Violence, 14(1), 30-46, DOI: 10.1080/15388220.2014.954045

    Cacioppo, J.T., Cacioppo, S., Gonzaga, G.C., Ogburn, E.L., and VenderWeele, T.J. (2013). Marital satisfaction and break-ups differ across on-line
    and off-line meeting venues. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(25). Pp. 10135-10140. doi/10.1073/pnas.1222447110.

    Concordia Social Media Team (2022, June 23). 10 ways to protect yourself on social media: from friend requests to phishing, here are the essentials. Concordia University.

    Express Employment Professionals (2020). 71% of Hiring Decision-Makers Agree Social Media is Effective for Screening Applicants. CisionPRWeb.

    Junco, R. (2012). In-class multitasking and academic performance. (Article in Press). Computers in Human Behavior.

    Kushlev, K. and Dunn, E.W. (2015). Research Report: Checking email less frequently reduces stress. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 124 (1) (2014), pp. 11-23, 10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.01.001(opens in new window)

    Lanaj, K., Johnson, R., & Barnes, C. (2014). Beginning the workday yet already depleted? Consequences of late- night smartphone use and sleep. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 124 (1) (2014), pp. 11-23, 10.1016/j.obhdp.2014.01.001(opens in new window) (2022, June 21). Communicating with your partner on deployment.

    Schmitt, J.B., Breuer, J. & Wulf, T. (2021). From cognitive overload to digital detox: Psychological implications of telework during the COVID-19 pandemic. Computers in Human Behavior. 124(November 2021). Elsevier. in new window)

    Schmuck, D. (2020). Does digital detox work? Exploring the role of digital detox applications for problematic smartphone use and well-being of young adults using multigroup analysis. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, Advance online publication (2020), 10.1089/cyber.2019.0578(opens in new window)

      2: Social Media and Interpersonal Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 1.3 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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