Jeffrey Hall is passionate about two things in particular – friendship and social media – and he thinks the latter is too often mistaken for the enemy of the former.
His latest article reviews the best available evidence to debunk the “social displacement hypothesis” that mobile and social media use is the cause of declining face-to-face (FtF) interactions. In doing so, he uncovered a disturbing trend: in the US, Britain and Australia, there has been a steady and uniform decline in FtF time that began long before the rise of social media. This new analysis shows that the decline has continued thanks to stay-at-home orders and social distancing from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hall, professor of communication studies and director of the Relations and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas, and his co-author, Dong Liu of Renmin University in China, tackle this notion in a new article titled “Social media use, social displacement and well-being” in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.
“The social displacement hypothesis is probably the best-known and longest-lasting explanation for the origin of time spent using new technologies — from the internet to texting, and now social media —,” Hall said. “The social displacement argument says that new media is reducing our face-to-face time. The best available evidence suggests that this is simply not the case.
Hall took FtF time data from the US Department of Labor’s annual report US time use survey and similar government studies in Oz and Britain between 1995 and 2021 and plotted them on a single graph. All three lines decrease over time at a similar rate.
“Yes,” Hall said, “it’s the case that social media consumption rates have increased across all demographics and across the world. Yes, it’s the case that face-to-face time has decreased However, this is not the case that it takes time face to face.
If the evidence does not support the social displacement theory, then where does the time come for increased use of social media?
“We’re seeing a transformation in where people put their attention,” Hall said. Noting that TikTok and YouTube are increasingly popular outlets for watching streaming content, Hall suggests that time spent on social media likely borrows from time spent watching TV, which for decades has been a major place where Americans spend their time. “Social media time also borrows time from work or household chores,” Hall said.
And, says Hall, friendship and social media are not enemies: “Social media can be used in many ways to promote friendship, especially now that many people use email programs supported by social media platforms.” As the newspaper claims, “social people are active both online and offline.”
The paper reports new analysis showing that FtF time has fallen in three countries in the same way. “That the UK data follows the US data so closely despite using slightly different methods in different years is surprising,” Hall said. This international trend of reduced face-to-face communication time may reflect increasing rates of loneliness.
Hall’s analysis shows that these downward trends in face-to-face communication existed long before the pandemic, and the pandemic may have exacerbated some of them. When people had a little time because they weren’t commuting to work or couldn’t get out as much, they didn’t turn to face-to-face communication. “What’s disheartening about this,” Hall notes, “is that even when people have time, they don’t seem to be using it in a way that promotes their social health.” Noting the widespread evidence that FtF socializing benefits well-being, “we’re not on track to be able to reclaim that face-to-face time,” Hall said, “at least in these three countries.”
Why is FtF time decreasing? “The best available evidence suggests that face-to-face time competes with hours spent at work and in transportation,” Hall said. In other words, people who work more spend more of their free time alone. During the pandemic, when people recouped that commute time, “they still spent it working virtually,” Hall said. “They didn’t spend it socializing with each other.”
“It seems like we live in a society that values work and media consumption over everything else,” Hall said. “The reduction in face-to-face time is a question of priority and a question of availability. And we don’t prioritize face-to-face time, nor are we available to do that.