The student news site of Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, Illinois.

BEACON

The student news site of Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, Illinois.

BEACON

The student news site of Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, Illinois.

BEACON

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Social media’s effects on modern-day relationships and the need for third places

Creative Commons
Creative Commons

It’s hard to remember a time when social media wasn’t at the forefront of our lives. A survey done last June found that 51% of US teenagers spend at least 4 hours on social media each day – more than the average teen spends doing homework. While at first glance, platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter seem like a great way to make new connections and keep in touch with old friends, a closer look shows that they are, in fact, the culprits in a growing sense of generational loneliness and disconnect. According to senior Caroline Hart, “to engage in social media is to engage in a half-reality in which ‘befriending’ people can feel more isolating than anything else. There are infinite possibilities, yet none of them truly contain anything of substance. It’s not real interaction, yet it has real consequences.”

Generally, there are three main types of friendship: active, dormant, and commemorative. Active friends are the ones with whom you keep in touch regularly and can rely on for emotional support. Dormant friends are those with whom you have a shared history; even if you haven’t spoken in a while, you still consider them a friend. Finally, a commemorative friend is one who isn’t really in your life anymore. They were important during an era of your life, which is why you consider them a friend, but you don’t really expect to hear from them again.

Social media combines all these friendships into one place. It creates an excess of surface-level, shallow relationships. Scrolling through stories gives the illusion of maintaining a friendship without actually talking. As Marlon Twyman II, a social scientist at USC specializing in social network analysis, says, “social media today is less driven by actual social connection. It is powered by the ‘appearance of social connection’. Human relationships have suffered and their complexity has diminished. Because many of our interactions are now occurring in platforms designed to promote transactional interactions that provide feedback in the form of attention metrics, many people do not have much experience or practice interacting with people in settings where there are collective or communal goals for a larger group.” 

As a result, social media creates a false sense of abundance. We think we have so many online strangers to talk to, we can make new friends whenever we want. This makes people less willing to put in the effort of maintaining or fixing real life relationships, eventually leading to a sense of isolation. However, one way to mitigate this is to bring a third place into your life.

If the first place is home and the second place is work or school, third places are public spaces where people can gather, socialize, and relax on equal footing and with low entry cost. This term was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenberg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. Think a cafe, a public park, or a library. Third places build a sense of community and offer affiliation – casual connection to a group of people. These kinds of relationships require less effort than intimate bonds, but create the opposite effect of social media seclusion. Dr. Narae Lee, researcher at Penn State, mentions that “one of the important features of ‘third places’ is social contact, either directly or indirectly. In third places, you can enjoy direct social interaction with other people by chatting and enjoying activities with them.” 

While this is common practice in many European countries, spending time in third places is not so widespread in the U.S., where many people prefer to recuperate alone, in the comfort of their own homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many third places were forced to close, and since then have become even less accessible. As teenagers, we are often not welcome in third places – society sees us as nuisances and discourages loitering; or we cannot afford the cost that comes with some safe third places.

Keeping up relationships as a high school student with a busy workload can be exhausting, and online interactions only contribute to this fatigue. It is important for us to find spaces where we can connect with other human beings, keep ourselves grounded, and find solitude without loneliness. Next time you’re looking for a way to unwind, or trying to decide where to pass some time, I encourage you to step outside your usual setting and find a third place: you never know what—or who—you might find. 

(If you’re interested in hearing more about these topics, I recommend this youtube video by Mina Le.)

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