Does Social Media Make People Meaner?

Photo: Paul Bradbury (Getty Images) 

I met a girl last month who is known among my friends for having controversial opinions, some that have drawn ire from me and others. After spending over an hour with her in person, though, I quickly realized how different our face-to-face interaction was compared to online. Some of those “controversial” opinions made a lot more sense when we discussed and unpacked them in person. The way she presented herself and the way I read her was like meeting an entirely new person, even though only a couple of things had changed.

Her arguments were no longer malicious, they just weren’t expressed clearly in a social media space like they were when we were able to sit down and actually converse one-on-one. While I still don’t agree with some of her opinions, I suddenly understood that some of them that I had initially assumed to be harmful or antagonistic were simply misunderstood and then blasted by groups of people who fed on that confusion and their own anger.

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It’s harder to hide all of our facets in face-to-face interactions versus how we choose to present ourselves online. Communication is simply not the same over a computer. Some argue that people are the same online as they are offline, and at a person’s core, that is likely true, but only to an extent. Our brains process information and social interactions differently when interacting over a computer versus in-person. There are limitations with understanding other people, and with that can come the unfortunate side effect of social media bringing out the worst in people, making us that extra bit nastier thanks to the cover of anonymity.

A 2003 study found that human beings have a stronger emotional reaction when dealing with another person in face-to-face interactions versus how we react to a computer. Specifically, in-person social interaction “activates a consistent set of brain areas.”

“One of the distinctive attributes of human social cognition is our tendency to build models of other minds, which helps us make inferences about the mental states of others. When interacting with other people, we automatically make inferences about them without even being consciously aware of it… This suggests that interaction with human partners requires more emotional involvement, and thus more cognitive effort, than interacting with a computer.” – Dr. Liraz Margalit in an article for The Next Web

Essentially, communication through a computer limits the way our brain receives social interaction. That ability to ponder what a person is thinking or their intentions because of a lack of inferences that we normally develop in face-to-face social interaction is often skewed. In person, our emotional involvement cannot be controlled during that interaction as those brain areas are automatically activated when around other people. A computer, however, does not “require cognitive or emotional involvement,” as Dr. Margalit points out, making online interactions easier but also affecting key elements of communication, specifically assumptions and understanding.

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What comes along with in-person interactions are the nonverbal cues that are part of communication. Body language, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, the tone of voice, and so on. They help with inferring someone else’s intentions while adding depth to human interaction as well as demanding “cognitive and emotional effort,” Dr. Margalit writes. Online interactions make it easier to hide our emotions and at the same time make inferring another’s intentions harder to understand or communicate. Social media platforms “help people project any image they want; they can be whoever and whatever they want to be. Without the ability to receive nonverbal cues, their audiences are none the wiser,” Dr. Margalit writes in an article for Psychology Today.

As Dr. Margalit further explains, communication online is not “synchronized” like in-person interactions. We don’t have to pay as much attention to each other’s signals. Online interactions are, in some ways, “devoid of emotions.” This is where I feel there is a communicative breakdown with social media interactions. Where computers allow us to take a break from “emotional involvement, cognitive effort, and brain activation,” this can negatively impact the human beings behind the screen.

Emojis and emoticons are one way to fill the gap on nonverbal cues, but without in-person interaction, we all know how false or misleading they can be. How many times have you sent a smiley face or thumbs up emoji when you were actually feeling sad or pissed off? The person on the other end has no way of knowing for sure because as mentioned above, online communication allows a person to be whatever they want.

To be clear, this isn’t an anti-social media mandate. I still advocate the importance of connections and innovations made on these platforms, but too many of us don’t take even a second to step back and consider some of the damage as well. If our brains subconsciously respond to other people online as simply us interacting with a computer, then we are missing basic essential elements of human interaction. This leads to misinterpretation, false assumptions, and even mob mentality based off of wrong inferences. Online communication doesn’t have to correlate with us only seeing people as computers. The real human being exists behind the screen, and it only benefits us to remember that.