Maneet Bhatia wants us to use social media as an extension of ourselves, not a definition.
Social media is exploding! It is the new avenue through which we communicate with each other. But what does social media mean for men and the…
Sorry. I just went over 140 characters. I have no more space. Oh wait. This isn’t Twitter. Phew! Luckily, I will get more than 140 characters here, and the chance to coherently elaborate (I make no promises) on my thoughts on social media and the impact it has on men and their social experience.
As I was putting this article together I spoke with two of my friends with the hopes of getting different men’s perspectives on social media. They prefaced their opinion with the fact that they are older guys who did not grow up with this technology so they may be biased. (I will also add the preface that the three of us do not represent all men!). But they felt that sites like Facebook and Twitter are detrimental to social bonds. They serve to separate rather than connect us. And when they do connect us these connections are superficial and meaningless.
I listened intently, and was able to identify with a lot of what they said. But I was torn. Yes, we did not grow up with this technology so maybe we don’t really understand it. And yes, in many ways these sites can dilute our relationships with others. On the other hand, I have experienced and witnessed many positives that can come from social media.
Why does Social Media Matter? Why should we care about social media? Social media expert Brian Solis sums up it up best in this one statement: “Social Media is Psychology and Sociology, not the Technology.” The reality is that social media is shaping the people we are, and how we relate with our world. Today with over 800 million users and counting, Facebook has more users than the entire Internet did in 2004. Could you imagine your life now without Facebook? We depend on it for almost every aspect of our social existence.
Connecting With Your Social Circle I always find benefit in any device that can connect men with important people in their lives. As much as social media is “new,” the importance and necessity of socializing for human beings is certainly not. Psychologically, we know that creating and maintaining social support is critical to our well-being. Unfortunately, far too often men struggle with seeking and maintaining social support. As I have written elsewhere, this is a double-edged sword for men as men both need and lack social support. Social media can provide that social support men so desperately need. It can be fun, easy to access, and in most cases you can engage in it on your own terms. It does not have to be threatening.
Social media can provide men with a platform to express themselves and share their lives. For example, posting pictures of life events or moments on Facebook, “liking” status updates, and being able to comment on other friends’ lives can be an enriching process. I know in my own life, Facebook has connected me with friends and family members I may otherwise not have been able to be close with.
I can’t believe that happened! #angry Twitter now boasts over 100 million users. Twitter is the ultimate playground for personal self-expression. The gift and curse of Twitter is that you are limited to 140 characters. But in an odd way, these restrictions can be quite liberating. You do not have to think too much about what you are feeling. It does not have to be thought provoking or eloquent. It can be visceral, and to the point.
Research shows that just naming your feelings can have a positive impact on our psychological health. Simply acknowledging when you are sad or angry, happy or excited is crucial to our emotional development and mental health. So often when I work with men in therapy, a block to emotional awareness and expression is at the heart of their difficulties. Saying how you feel is not easy for many. Saying it without having to qualify, justify, or minimize it is even harder. I am amazed to see people’s reactions to events on Twitter. They are to the point and honest. It is hard to mince words on Twitter. In that sense, Twitter provides a (cyber) space for men to vent.
The Pitfalls of Social Media Like anything else in life, there are pros and cons to social media. Just as much as social media can connect us, in many ways it takes us away from the face-to-face interactions and relationships we have with others. It does alarm me when people are sitting at restaurants, coffee shops, and at their friend’s houses with their heads buried in their iPhones or Blackberry’s. (I’m guilty of all three.) Whether it is checking Facebook, sending a Tweet, or looking at any of the other thousands of social media applications at their disposal, men may miss out opportunities to connect with the people in front of them.
And unfortunately I’ve seen this happen quite often. I wonder what kind of impact this will have on younger men who are still developing social skills. To what extent will they be able to socialize without devices? Will they appreciate the “simpler” moments in life? Being able to sit around the backyard with their friends and just talk. Enjoy each other’s company. Enjoy the moment. Social media and the Internet have lowered our patience and increased our need for stimulation. Constant and instant gratification is priority. Got to feed the need.
For men who may already find it challenging to connect with others, immersing oneself in social media may discourage them from even trying to engage socially with other people in their lives. It may be “easier” to live in the digital world than in the “real” one, and that may cost men intimacy with friends and loved ones.
For example, how real are our relationships in the digital world? How many friends on your Facebook account are people you actually know very well? In part, social media sites like Facebook have diluted the quality of friendships. In many ways, today’s generation values quantity over quality.
Social Status and Competition Social media can strike at the core of traditional masculinity through heightening the importance of social status and creating competition. For example, knowing how many friends you have on Facebook or how many people are following you on Twitter can be a measure of your social status. It brings implicit social dynamics of popularity and status into explicit, quantifiable terms (e.g. number of friends/followers).
Additionally, Four Square is based on the idea of “checking-in” to a location and being rewarded for the number of times you check-in. With enough “check-ins” users can become the Mayor of a particular establishment for example. This can be fun and entertaining. However, websites like these can impart subtle messages and create competition to maintain your social standing among friends. Therefore, something innocuous as going to McDonald’s may take on a different meaning and purpose.
Moderation is key Overall, when it comes to social media, moderation is the key. Find that happy medium. Be aware of those moments when you are spending more time communicating with your iPhone than you are with the friend across the table at the bar or your partner in the living room. Make social media an extension of you, but do not let it define you. From this perspective, I believe social media can be good for men.
As for me? I hope to maintain that balance point as well. On that note, I am going to tweet this article and share it on my Facebook wall. If you’d like to keep in touch you can follow me on Twitter @psychstatemind.
Maneet Bhatia, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His specializations are in the areas of psychotherapy research, emotions, and male psychology. He is also a practicing psychotherapist and author of a psychology blog entitled Psych State of Mind.
photo: scobleizer / flickr