3 Ways Social Media Is Ruining Your Real-Life Relationships

Psychologist By Emma Seppälä, Ph.D.
Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. is the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, as well as the author behind The Happiness Track.
3 Ways Social Media Is Ruining Your Real-Life Relationships

Social media has completely transformed the experience of travel. Not just because dodging selfie sticks makes navigating tourist attractions harder but because tourists no longer even look at the monuments, piazzas, or works of art anymore. Instead, they turn their backs and look at themselves on a screen.

The experience of art and history has been replaced with the experience of a digital representation of those things. We spend more time thinking about how other people will perceive our adventures than actually having them.

These days, the urge to check social media is stronger than the urge for sex. Both are driven by a need to connect. After food and shelter, our need to belong and feel positively connected to others is arguably the number one predictor of well-being, happiness, health, and even longevity.

Trying to connect in this way, though, is actually counterproductive. Here are three ways virtual connection is ruining your real-life relationships:

1. You've lost the moment.

What are you doing on social media? Sharing moments. Moments of joy, of friendship, humor, and beauty. Ironically, by engaging with social media, you lose the moment. In your quest to connect virtually, you disconnect from your reality and the people in it.

You lose the experience of happiness in the process of trying to refine your smile for public consumption. Your attachment to positive reinforcement through likes and comments will keep you detached.

We're happiest when our mind is in the present moment — not when it’s wandering off somewhere. Truly savoring a positive experience — i.e., immersing yourself fully it — enhances the experience and the happiness you derive from that experience. When you pull out that selfie stick, you’ve lost it. You’ve effectively pressed pause on the moment you are about to celebrate virtually.


2. It's addictive and self-absorbing.

Instead of deriving pleasure from your experience and the people around you, you seek it (along with validation) from your phone. Your brain’s pleasure centers also respond positively to novelty, which social media offers in a constant stream of new interactions, new posts, and new pictures every second.

Ironically, a tool to connect you with others makes you feel you isolated and obsessed over the appearance you're making, the responses you’re getting, the impressions you are giving (Was what I wrote OK? How come there aren’t more likes?). Authentically connecting with others has numerous benefits. Self-focus, on the other hand, is associated with anxiety and depression.

Instead of deriving pleasure from your vacation, your device becomes your main source of pleasure. Unwittingly, however, it makes you less connected and more narcissistic. With that comes a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows caused by obsessive attention-seeking.

3. It's actually harmful to relationships.

One study showed that the mere presence of a cellphone when two people are talking interferes with feelings of closeness, connection, and communication. We are profoundly social creatures wired to connect with others. We are exquisitely fine-tuned to understand people by internalizing the minutest changes in their body language and faces.

We automatically mirror and mimic these movements, creating a sense of understanding toward the feelings of others. This is why you cringe when you see someone fall on the street or why you feel sad when you see someone’s eyes filling with tears.

If devices constantly interfere with your conversations, you undermine your ability to connect with others. You miss the flicker of emotion in your child’s eye, the look of exasperation in your partner, or the attempt of a friend to share something meaningful with you. In theory, social media is meant to connect us, but in reality, it acts as a barrier.

It’s fairly simple: Our impulse to broadcast our lives makes us miss out on them. So for your next vacation, leave your selfie stick at home, take your social media apps off your smartphone, and lose yourself in the travel experience. You might actually do something worth writing home about.

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