living well online

We need new vocabulary. We require more extensive terminology for social media friends and electronic interactions. My kids do not know a world where social media friends did not exist, but still, they seem to know that there is a difference between a Facebook friend and a friend who knows your heart. Depending on your personality and social comfort zones, however, it might not be so easy to know the difference. My kids enjoy interacting with people in person, talking with them, hanging out with them, so they know that an internet-based relationship is not the same. On some level, they know that an Instagram follower you see pictures of or posts from almost every day is a different relationship from someone you only see once a year but with whom you’ve shared a summer at camp or a year in high school precalculus. Your classmate moved away and you’ve kept in touch with her ever since. You don’t hear from her every day on your smart phone, but you feel close to her anyway. In the most basic terms, children with human interpersonal relationships know not to confuse quantity with quality. Still, the blur of daily digital bombardment can confuse one’s emotions. A Snapchat community may feel more real than your favorite school group. A stranger’s Snapchat story may be more engaging than the cafeteria conversations you shared with classmates.

For me, who has spent the greater percentage of her life to date without social media friends, the concepts demand further definition. Is Jimmy Fallon my friend because I follow his daily tweets from The Tonight Show? Of course he isn’t, but I have access to his ideas 24/7 as long as I have an internet connection. On the other hand, my human friends may be out of town or at work or offline (perish the thought). I find myself wondering, do I know that fact or have that opinion because I exchanged ideas with another person or because I had a frequent electronic interaction with a particular point of view? Did I hash out a social argument or did I just absorb it, become saturated with it, through posts on Facebook by people I don’t even know, people who have their privacy settings set to “public” or “friends of friends.” Friends, facts, opinions vs. eFriends, eFacts, ePinions.

safe social networkingA reason for new words is to provide us with a common language. Each individual’s use of terminology helps us understand whether that person has a healthy understanding of social media interactions. A person who cannot clearly distinguish between a social media friend and a human interaction friend might not use the terms correctly or precisely. This would help us recognize, for example, if a child was having an online relationship with someone they had never met, someone whom they really didn’t know. It would be a clue that your widowed father wasn’t getting out much and had become isolated in an online world where he no longer shared human laughter and had become quite lonely. Alternatively, it would be a way to talk about relationships with a highly introverted coworker who seeks help developing vital personal interactions and bridging a gap to emotional fulfillment.

As we evolve as an eSpecies, the percentage of time we spend in electronic versus human interaction will change. These interactions affect our personalities, our relationships, our cultures, our societies. Let’s grow our language to encompass these different worlds and empower us to differentiate between them.

Cherise Tasker is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch and has a background in health information. Most evenings, Cherise can be found reading a book, attending a book club meeting, or coordinating a book group.