Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Does technology really cut us off from other people?

By Jeremy Adam Smith

Smarthphones and social media are changing our daily lives and our society. It’s now normal to see two people at a dinner table fiddling with their phones—and why not? They probably first met each other through their phones, on a dating site like OKCupid.

But are digital devices and social media disconnecting us from the flesh-and-blood people in our lives? Should you ditch the Facebook profile and spend more time with your spouse? Is social networking cutting out people whose culture and politics are different from our own?

Or can mobile devices actually expand and strengthen our web of contacts, coworkers, friendships, family, and more?

Those are the questions tackled in this past week’s Greater Good magazine , published by the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. We cut through the rhetoric and the fears with empirical research that shows how we’re really using our smartphones and social media sites.

You can start by taking our quiz , which draws on scientifically validated scales to diagnose the reader’s level of social capital—that is, the web of social networks that research says can help us to be " happier , healthier , and better employed ." We provide feedback to the reader based on her answers—and point to resources she can use to make the most of her social networks, online and off.

Step two is to read social psychologist Juliana Breines’s thought-provoking introductory essay, “Are Some Social Ties Better Than Others?” Breines—a UC Berkeley Ph.D. who is now at Brandies University—describes how weak ties can make us strong and strong ties can make us weak--and how all these different ties can fit together to build our social capital.

social-media-friend Then we drill down a bit. In "Does Technology Cut Us Off from Other People?" recent Cal grad (and current job-seeker , FYI) Lauren Klein explores three new studies that paint a surprisingly complicated picture of the role of mobile devices in our social lives—and suggest steps we can take to make the most of technology.

For example, a team of researchers at the University of Florida found that heavy smartphone use was not associated with lower social capital--but only if a good part of that time was devoted to social networking services like Facebook, which often enhanced real-world connections. This was true for young and old alike.

In another essay, "How Your Teen Can Thrive Online," developmental psychologist Diana Divecha discusses two new--but very different--books about how teens are growing up online. Her piece is really a snapshot of a digitally connected culture in transition.

Finally, Jill Suttie leaves the digital world behind to look at how we can design our communities to maximize social capital. In "How Social Connections Keep Seniors Healthy," Jill looks specifically at neighborhoods for retired people. Studies find that social connections can have a truly dramatic impact on our health, especially for people over 65: A socially active elder has 43 percent less disability than someone who is more isolated, and about half the rate of cognitive decline. So how can we design communities for seniors that facilitate friendship, community activism, and other forms of social connection?

As is always the case in Greater Good essays, we embed links to the actual studies. We hope you'll check them out!