Love, Kindness, and (Social) Media: Contrast or Symbiosis?

  • 14 February 2016
  • sjanicke

Since it is the weekend of Valentines Day, I wanted to talk about love. But not the kind of love celebrated on Valentines Day, but the love we should celebrate every day of the year. I am not talking about romantic love, but the love we all are, seek, and that connects us, even the most diverse of us.

Research indicates that 25% of Americans feel persistently lonely, which includes not having anyone to talk to about personal problems or triumphs. Additionally, loneliness has been shown to be a major risk factor for morbidity and even mortality in humans. So we literally die earlier from being socially isolated. Whaaat?

Research consistently shows that social relationships, strong and weak, are one of the top predictors of well-being. We have an innate need to relate to others. After all we are a social species and biologically equipped to take on other peoples’ perspectives and understand their intentions and emotions, which distinguishes us from our beloved house pet.

Therefore, the more we feel connected to other people and can exchange love (and with that I mean sharing stories, sharing vulnerabilities, listening, relating, laughing, touching) the happier and healthier we are and the longer we live.

Does (social) media hinder or foster our exchange of love?

When we are wired to connect and experience and share love for the sake of building strong social bonds that helps our survival, then technologies seem to be the perfect place to strengthen our social bonds and foster our relationships. However, when we talk about love, connection, and technology, more often than not the discussion is about how technology hinders our ability to foster social connections. Researchers talk about how we need to have more real world- face-to-face interactions rather than virtual or online communication.

Research indicates that technology prevents kids from learning how to read emotions from people’s faces, which is a prerequisite for empathy and compassion.  Research also indicates that we see an overall decrease of 40% of empathy in college students today, compared to college students 20-30 years ago. 

On the other hand, however, research shows that Facebook, for example, is used mainly to entertain and foster offline relationships. More specifically, for example, Subrahmanyam et al.  (2008) showed that young adults often have different close online and close offline friends. Social networking and text messaging then is used to strengthening different sets of online and offline friendships. The authors point out that  this is similar to adults who foster close relationships with work friends more online rather than offline, since we may not hang out with our work friends so much outside of work.

In another study, Cornejo, Tentori, and Favela (2013) showed that particularly for older adults, social networking sites can strengthen their offline interactions with their relatives.  

Yet another study showed that in fact text messaging in non-romantic dyads is often used to check in if the other person is safe and well, to share ones experiences, and to let the other person know one is thinking of them. 

While there are a lot more nuances to the scholarship of social media’s impact on our social relationships, at lest some evidence seems to suggest that social networks  in fact do foster social connections or at least provide us with the opportunity to entertain multiple networks (online and offline, weak and strong) that may be of different social value when needed.

Loving apps?

Additionally, there are now applications that are based on love that literally can help save people’s lives. For example, there is Rethink, the anti bullying app, or DoSomething.org, a crisis helpline that is based on text messaging that has already helped save many teenagers from making terrible decisions (suicide, self-destruction ect). These applications are an essential element to provide love to people, especially the young, who completely lost connection with the core of their being.

Technologies can help us to bring more love and kindness to other with greater ease and efficiency. 

Additionally, technologies can help usto  bring more love and kindness to others with greater ease and effciency. For example, the app Crystal helps you to respond more empathically via email, and the app Charlie provides you with background information about the people you will have upcoming meetings with, making it easier for you to connect and build relationships. 

Now, we can talk about the effects of technologies taking over the relationship building homework for us, and if that indeed increases or decreases our ability to relate, but at least the intention of such technologies is to assist us in building and fostering social connections. Research has to do the rest. 

Love and Kindness Towards Strangers: How Apps Can Assist

Besides fostering relationships with people we know, being generally kind toward strangers, so people we don't know, is also a scientifically validated strategy to foster social connectedness and thus, wellbeing. In fact, the International Random Acts of Kindess week is coming up and we are challenged to participate in at least one random act of kindness per day for a week. Again, technology can assist us with that.

This article lists 5 apps that help you to spread kindness by suggesting kind acts for you to do and providing possibilities to share your successes with your social networks. And from a cognitive standpoint we know that sharing leaves a reward response in our brain, making it more likely for us to repeat the behavior in the future. And for acts of kindness, that is what we want to see, right?

Besides apps, recent research also shows how films that are perceived as meaningful by people, foster a feeling of connectedness towards close others, ones family, and even the transcendent aspects of life. In turn, the feelings of connectedness towards a higher power and gratitude towards one’s family motivated people to feel and act compassionately towards strangers. So, just reflecting on a movie like The Pursuit of Happyness, The Blind Side, Saving Private Ryan, 500 Days of Summer, A Walk to Remember, or Remember the Titans can at least in the short term, develop an emotional state of compassion.

And in fact, other studies show that even just a short exposure to a video that depicts  acts of moral beauty and excellence make people actually more likely to help strangers (also see my previous blog post on inspiring commercials during the Super Bowl).

It’s not the technology but what we do with it that determines its positive or negative effect on love and connectedness with other people.

In the end, it all depends on what we do with the technologies in our hands. It is not the technology that is inherently good or bad but it is us, the people, who use it, who determine that.

Nobody wants to be lonely. Social connections are essential to our survival. And new communication technologies can be facilitators to connect, share, receive, and spread the love we all carry and crave for, if we choose to use them in that way.

So if we choose, we can live in symbiosis with technologies... to flourish... as a species...together.

And if you don't believe me that media can spread love than listen to the song or watch the commercial below. If you don't feel your heart pounding, you may want to check if you are not a robot:) 

A strange passion is moving in my head.

My heart has become a bird

which searches in the sky.

Every part of me goes in different directions.

Is it really so

that the one I love is everywhere?

- Poem by Rumi