It’s a well-known and seemingly logical argument: social media makes us less social. We’re tied to our phones at the expense of the real world and interacting with other people.
And according to Jeffrey Hall, professor of communications science and director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas, the concept even has a name: the social displacement hypothesis.
“The social displacement hypothesis is probably the best-known and most enduring explanation for where the time spent using new technologies — from the internet to SMS to social media — comes from,” Hall said in a 2022 press release.
But he’s not convinced that’s true.
The facts about using social media
It is true that the use of social media has increased in recent years. In 2021, an estimated 72 percent of US adults visited at least one social media platform. Compare that to just 5 percent in 2005.
Younger generations are still leading this trend, but the over-65s are the fastest growing demographic of social media users – their number has doubled since 2013.
Most Americans also use social media on a daily basis. Seventy percent say they log on to Facebook at least once a day, while just 12 percent admit to using the platform less than once a week.
The social displacement argument claims that all of this social media use limits our face-to-face interactions. “[But] the best available evidence suggests that is not the case,” says Hall.
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A Decline in Face-to-Face Communication?
In a recent study published last year in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, Hall and co-author Dong Liu of Renmin University of China in Beijing set out to find an alternative explanation.
The pair analyzed government data on the length and frequency with which people in Australia, the UK and the US communicated face-to-face between 1995 and 2021.
The data showed that all three countries actually experienced a similar decline in real social exchanges during this period. And while COVID-19 restrictions have had a severe impact, the downward trend in pre-pandemic personal socialization is on the decline.
For example, a 2018 study of social media use surveyed 1,000 teenagers and found that in 2012 their favorite way to communicate was face-to-face. Just six years later, that was no longer the case.
But Hall and Liu argue that social media isn’t to blame for these changes. In fact, they have concluded that there is very little evidence of a causal link between social media use and declining socialization in the real world.
Read more: Social media negatively impacts teen mental health
Impact of Social Media
So, where is everyone finding the time to scroll through TikTok and watch YouTube videos, and what is the impact of social media growth?
After collating the numbers, Hall and Liu argue that the boon of social media comes at the expense of more traditional media uses — like radio or television. It could also reduce the time spent at work or doing housework.
Of course, there are other reasons to worry about the increase in social media use and the decline in face-to-face interactions.
Hall’s other studies, for example, have suggested that social media may make us lonelier. And there’s evidence that just one good chat with a friend a day can boost well-being.
So every once in a while, it might be worth putting YouTube aside and spending a movie night with family or friends in front of the traditional TV instead.
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