Social Media

Relax, Social Media Isn’t Replacing IRL Socializing

A new study shows people don’t consider their time on Twitter and Facebook to be social interaction

Social Media
Illustration: Diana Quach
Aug 15, 2016 at 12:20 PM ET

If you trust the think pieces, sites like Facebook are replacing good old fashioned face-to-face conversation. Instead of meeting up for coffee, we’re exchanging empty “likes” and retweets. But, according to a new study, reports of the death of IRL socializing have been greatly exaggerated.

“All of this worry that we’re seeking out more and more social interaction on Facebook is not true,” said study author Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. “Most interactions are face-to-face, and most of what we consider social interaction is face-to-face.”

The paper, published in the journal New Media & Society, is comprised of three different mini-studies looking at social media use. In the first study, 116 participants were asked to spend 5 or 10 minutes on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and then report back with estimates of how much time they spent on various activities. The majority of the time, 41 percent, was spent just browsing the site or app (41 percent). Then there was reading stories (15 percent), looking at profiles of new or potential friends (11 percent), and “liking” or “favoriting” people’s posts (9 percent).

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None too surprisingly, all that browsing and “liking” did not exactly translate to feelings of human connection: 75 percent reported that they did not feel like they had socially interacted during that time.

In the second study, researchers asked nearly 200 participants to record social interactions over the course of five days with three different friends. Only in this study, researchers defined social interaction as “an exchange or conversation with another person in which both people attended to one another and adjusted their behavior in response to one another.” The most common social interaction reported was face-to-face (61 percent), followed by phone calls (16 percent). Then there was texting (15 percent), social media (3 percent), instant messaging (3 percent), and email (1 percent).

You’ll note that a miniscule percentage of social interaction, at least as defined by the study, took place on social media. That social media socializing—as opposed to social media use that didn’t meet the definition of social interaction—took place through private message (62 percent), as well as wall posts (27 percent) and sharing photos (4 percent).

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The final study had 54 participants respond to random text messages over the course of five days asking them to complete a survey about their social interaction within the last 10 minutes. This time, social interaction wasn’t defined for participants. The majority of the time, particpants reported that they had recently socialized, and most of it, 75 percent, took place face-to-face. There was also texting or chatting (17 percent), phone calls (6 percent), and, finally, social media (2 percent).

The takeaway, say researchers, is that people view social media use as distinctly different from socializing, and that most of what people see as socializing happens offline. “If we want to have a conversation, we’re not using social media to do it,” said Hall. “People use social media to people-watch and still seem to enjoy a good face-to-face conversation.”