Tangled in the Social Web

Seth+Walker+multitasks+work+and+play+thanks+to+technology.

Carlos Wyrick/Staff Photographer

Seth Walker multitasks work and play thanks to technology.

One of the most significant ways that the 21st century has changed life is the growth of social media as a means of communication. This aspect of modern life has benefited humans as social creatures by providing important elements of socialization not previously available. 

Warren Wilson sociology professor Kristin Kelly, who became interested in sociology after learning about how education affects social classes differently, has done some significant research on the effects of isolation on humans. 

“One impact is that the less contact we have with other people, the more we become suspicious of other people,” said Kelly, who will be offering a course on digital sociology over the summer of 2021. 

Social media has arguably improved lives by filling in for socialization that an individual may not receive in-person. Gen Z has grown up immersed in virtual communities that previous generations did not have access to in their youth. Students who may be bullied in school now have access to virtual communities necessary to their lives. 

Because of the rapidly expanding accessibility of digital technology, social media and virtual interactions have been able to fill an important hole in humans’ lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have been able to log into class from their laptops at home. Young children have been able to facetime with friends and family members who they haven’t seen in a long time. Teens and adults alike have also been able to remain in touch with the world during this period of physical isolation. 

In this way, virtual interactions have been able to prevent the pandemic from creating as many problems in humans’ psyche.

Jen Mozolic, who received her PhD in neuroscience from Wake Forest University, shares her perspective on the way that pandemic isolation affects youth development.  

“We know that social and emotional connections enhance learning,” Mozolic said. “If students are engaged socially and emotionally with their online classroom experiences, then the screen time is probably not a primary concern.”  

However, according to Kelly, there is a separate distinct problem that arises when the nature of technology is examined. 

“Technology has helped to modify human behavior by creating a gap between people and reducing intimacy,” Kelly said. 

How this gap in human intimacy may appear varies between situations. A common way it is now observed occurs during online class time. 

“If a student feels disconnected or disengaged in an online learning environment, then the screen time may be more of a problem,” Mozolic said. 

While social media and virtual interaction are a necessary accessibility during pandemic isolation, they do not serve as a perfect replacement. Pandemic isolation has not created as many negative problems as it has enhanced. Young people have already felt isolated and exasperated by other disappointing realities of the digital age. 

A personal experience that refutes this concept was provided by Warren Wilson sophomore and integrative studies major Finnegan Leclair

“As far as social media goes I’ve always had a really dodgy relationship with social media,” said Leclair. “I think that’s gotten intensified since the pandemic started. It felt like I always had, in my brain while using social media, that if I actually want to talk to any of these people then I can make plans to hang out with them in real life and now that’s not true.” 

In one of Kelly’s sociology classes, her students watched the recently released Netflix film called “The Social Dilemma.” They were asked to write an essay about this film and reflect on how it has changed their perception of digital media. 

“Among the many issues the film touches on include how tech companies have influenced elections, ethnic violence, and rates of depression and suicide,” Kelly said. “This new aspect of sociology — digital sociology — can create new power dynamics, where some voices become stronger than others due to their greater social media presence.” 

Aside from inadequate socialization and suspiciousness, there are other factors that contribute to the potential adverse effects of social media on the human condition. Some virtual classrooms do not have camera-on requirements or participation expectations, making it easy or tempting for a student to use lectures as background noise. In addition to that, students are spending an increased amount of time attempting to access social support on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and others, and are instead being met with aggression. 

“Many platforms and programs are designed to be extremely engaging, making it easy to spend more time on them than we intend,” Mozolic said. 

One of the most obvious detrimental effects is that of screens on circadian rhythms. Mozolic explained that in combination with engaging content, the blue light emitted from screens affects the human brain in a way that can alter sleeping habits. Young students who are required to be reliant on virtual classrooms and using technology are most vulnerable to this influence on sleep. 

Leclair contributed their voice to the engaging nature of digital technology.  

“First of all, I used to go on my laptop only if I had an assignment to do, and then when I went on my laptop outside of that it was to explore things that I liked,” Leclair said. “But I tried to stay off of it even then because if I was doing homework and something that I liked was open then I would spend time on that thing and forget all about my homework.”  

Leclair explained that before the pandemic they spent much less time on their laptop or phone because of their experience with ADHD and difficulty concentrating. 

“It’s been harder for me to use any kind of technology like that for joy,” Leclair said. “I used to enjoy doing that for leisure but now that’s different.”

Various people have coped with relative isolation in various ways, according to Leclair. 

“I think a lot of people are more willing to talk about their mental distress,” they continued. “There has been an increase (in memes) since the pandemic has started and that’s started to make me notice how the human experience, as far as relationships with people go, memes make everything seem like it’s less isolated.”