50 years ago, when Dr. Scott Geller was deep into his first year of teaching at Virginia Tech, many things stood as they do now. The Drillfield constituted the center of campus. Burruss and War Memorial Hall flanked its elongated sides. In its 10th year since construction, the War Memorial Chapel brought a solemn reminder of those that came before, as it does now. Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, said only one thing was different.
“Look around campus, the culture has changed. Students aren’t looking around at the environment anymore –– they’re looking at their cell phone,” he said.
Geller isn’t wrong. Most heads walking across the Drillfield are pointed down, shooting a text, scrolling through Instagram or catching up on the ever so important content on Tik Tok.
This phenomenon isn’t new.
What is developing, however, is our understanding of social media’s psychological effects on its users, and its potential consequences down the road.
“It’s going to have bigger effects, but I’m not sure that’s good or beneficial,” Geller said. “It’s the difference between effectiveness and efficiency. You want to be efficient? That means get the job done as fast as you can. Social media provides for the most efficient communication possible. But is it as effective? Effective takes time.”
There’s no arguing against the positives of social media. Whether it be direct communication for distant relatives, or online learning platforms like TED, there are a plethora of mediums that use social media for the right reasons and give back to users mostly positive consequences. In addition, our world community is advancing its dependence on social media communication as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the globe. From Facebook fundraisers, to the sharing of inspirational stories, to standing as one last beacon of connection, social media is accentuating the world’s efforts towards a return to global cohesion and prosperity.
The downfall of these revolutionary services is when users’ self-esteem and perception become dependent on that which they post on their pages.
Down what road, in what direction are we headed if our future leaders pull their inspiration and happiness not from those around them, but the phone that they hold in their hands?
Let’s take a step back. Genuinely, can you blame them? We naturally seek importance and validation; it’s human nature. There is no doubting that it feels good to see your peers applauding and celebrating you online, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking that.
The breaking point comes when the reality hits that, in the end, hundreds of likes, comments or mentions will not make a genuine improvement on you or your overall well-being.
This dependency has been shown to have drastic effects. Essena O'Neill is a former online personality, whose vegan and modeling lifestyle led her to hundreds of thousands of followers online, until she abruptly closed all her accounts and dropped off the grid. She later shared that “Social media isn’t real. It’s purely contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other … And it consumed me.”
The key element of psychology missing from social media, says Geller, is empathy.
He said “is social media taking us away from human interaction? Empathy is when you can really connect to the other person; that I can put myself in your shoes and know what it's like … and you can’t do that with social media.”
This conversation about social media is part of a bigger narrative. College life places a significant, albeit unwarranted, priority on perception. We are growing to be so constantly concerned with our outward image, that we are losing touch with what keeps us human, and what keeps us offline; things like a smile, a laugh or a genuine conversation with those around us.
If you were to walk across the Drillfield 50 years ago, things may not look too different on the surface. But let’s face it, our generation is growing up in a world of heightened isolation, and it’s due to social media. There is no telling how detrimental this dynamic could be. For the next week, put a priority on putting your phone down, and seek out conversations and interactions with those around you. You might be surprised at the effects.