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Quick – how many friends do you have? No, don’t just include your bosom buddies, or long-time loyal shoulders-to-cry-on; how many friends, in the real, and the virtual world? If you’re like most of us, then you probably will need time and a calculator to add them all up. We have connections on our LinkedIn accounts and friends on our Facebook accounts. We have FitBit friends, Instagram buddies, and Twitter fellows. We may truly enjoy connecting with these people; we may have shared jokes with them, discussed politics with them, even commiserated over the trials of work and family with them. Sure, we might not have met them in person, but that doesn’t really matter.

Except, it really actually might.

While social technology has evolved at breathtaking speed, making it as easy to talk with people in Nepal and Mumbai as with your neighbor down the street, our own socio-biological makeup still lags years behind. We human beings developed our capacity for empathy and attunement in close-knit groups where eye contact, body language, and the nuances of sound carry as much weight as the words we say. So, while we are using the highly developed, late-arriving pre-frontal cortex of our brain to process all those words and build them into images of the people we think they are, the far older regions of our brains that deal with all the nonverbal aspects of human connection are feeling left out.

Email Empathy:

Okay, so you may not be fully engaging with the friend you only know through their snarky Facebook posts, or the Tumblr follower who chats with you about your favorite show couple. But does that really make you less empathic? Surely you’re just engaging in a new style of communication, a quicker, easier route to friendship?

That’s the question researchers are trying to answer. A University of Michigan study showed a direct correlation between a spike in online communication in college students after 2000, and a significant decrease in empathy. For parents of students plagued by cyber-bullying, or those who have suffered the vicious stings of online harassment and public shaming, this will seem self-evident. But others, such as Dr. Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills, argue the opposite. Dr. Rosen claims there is a new style of empathy playing out, wherein people are experiencing more of others’ lives as a result of social media which results in a 13% increase in awareness for women and an 8% increase of awareness in men.

Is Awareness Enough?:

But is awareness empathy? Yes, Facebook gives the opportunity to connect with more people, and even more people with a greater diversity of life-experiences. But this does not mean that they create better or more involved connections as a result. In fact, the abundance of opportunity for connection makes creating meaningful ones increasingly challenging. We may intellectually know more about the struggles of others, and have a greater understanding of perspectives after connecting via the internet. But nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. When it comes to being truly emotionally invested in other human beings, person-to-person contact is still the gold standard.

To truly reach others, and engage those parts of our brain that bring forth empathy, we need to have a complete picture of a person. Eye contact is perhaps the biggest differentiator between connecting in person versus online, and also a factor that distinguishes individual connections (i.e. with personal friends) versus acquaintances or even celebrities whose stories we read online. It is a nuanced, primal way of connecting that cannot be replicated by words on a screen. We also need long-term, consistent relationships, not fleeting moments that occur sporadically at random intervals. In order to fully create a connection, there needs to be a trajectory of growth and development in the relationship—a sense that together we’ve made it from “here” to “there. This progression can happen in online platforms, but profound emotional growth, the glue that keeps a relationship together, is rooted in face-to-face engagement.
This doesn’t mean that you should ditch your Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr friends, or risk becoming a sociopath. The internet has made connecting easier for many people who struggle to find those with similar interests in their immediate physical area. That is all to the good. But to truly make those connections worthy of the name ‘friend,’ try and find a way to meet some of them, face-to-face.

The Dating Question:

All of this is particularly relevant when we come to the question of internet dating. Obviously, the internet can be a great tool in meeting people romantically: you don’t have to confine yourself to your immediate area and social circle, you can self-select by prescreening and advertising your criteria for a perfect mate, and you can chat with someone online before deciding if you even want to go on a first date with them. As a jumping off point, the internet can be a big help in the stresses of the dating game. But for many people, there is no “off” to it.
With video chat capabilities, you could have an entire relationship with someone without ever meeting. You could also cheat on a partner without ever risking a meeting with your lover—or you could use it to meet up with other cheating “singles.” But these pitfalls are all mostly retreads of the same old human foibles we had before the internet; the online world just makes them easier. What is different is the amount to which we can shut other people out, in favor of logging on. It is this which is most detrimental to our relationships. Empathy and connection require sustained person-to-person contact, and the ease with which we can have quick, superficial contact with many people can draw us away from focusing on one specific individual. Relationships born and carried out largely via text or Facebook conversations will never match, in depth or sincerity, those begun and sustained through computer-free interactions.

All Together Now:

So what’s the prescription for this problem? No, you don’t have to junk your e-friends. But setting limits on how much you interact with friends online, and giving yourself mandatory minimum rates of how much time you need to spend with them in person wouldn’t hurt. Remind yourself that the internet is a tool, not a means in and of itself. It should serve to make connecting easier, more rapid, and more enjoyable. When you find it doing the opposite, give yourself a break. The screen will always be there when you get back – your real-life friends might not.