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Islands unto ourselves

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/7/2014 (1143 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every year, the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and the Department of Philosophy sponsor a Manitoba High School Ethics Essay Competition. The Free Press is pleased to co-sponsor this competition and to print the winning essays. Over 100 students from across the province submitted essays this year on the topic "Are social media making us anti-social?" The winning essays, one answering "no" and the other "yes" are printed below. Rikki Bergen, who won the $1,000 first prize, is a Grade 11 student at École secondaire Neelin High School, in Brandon. Her sponsoring teacher was Tara Leach. Runner-up Sophie Hanson is a Grade 11 student at Balmoral Hall School, in Winnipeg. Her sponsoring teacher was John Kerr. Bergen argued the "no" side, while Hanson supported the "yes" side.


When the 17th century poet John Donne wrote "No man is an island," he was commenting on the importance of viewing the individual as part of a larger, interdependent community. Four hundred years later, technological advances have made it possible for human beings to form and maintain connections with one another without having to consider obstacles such as time or distance. However, increasing numbers of people believe that instead of improving our ability to connect, social media have caused us to become a society that values superficial contact over more sincere attachment. Some claim the growing obsession with tweeting, Facebooking, and texting is actually responsible for causing anti-social behaviour. Others see social media as merely reflecting a culture that has already trivialized face-to-face communication. I will defend the view that social media are neither inherently good, nor inherently bad -- they simply fill the void created when a modern society chooses to disengage from more complex and time-consuming methods of interaction. Arguably, this has resulted in a population that is becoming less contemplative, less civil, and increasingly isolationist.

Effective communication is not simply an exchange of words. It also employs tone, volume, eye contact, facial expression, and posture to impart meaning. When people rely on social media to convey their ideas, the nuance created by non-verbal signs is lost. For example, in a face-to-face conversation, embarrassment is easily recognized by taking note of cues like blushing, stammering, and downcast eyes; but it is harder for the recipient of an email to discern those same emotions unless they are stated explicitly. There are those who try to compensate for this deficiency by adding emoticons and emojis, but such devices often comes across as glib. This has an enormous impact on the way we interact with others. When communication is instantaneous, one is less likely to pause and consider the deeper meaning of what a sender is trying to express, before firing off a reply. Impetuous responses are not limited to emails and texts, but it is much more difficult to recognize and correct misunderstandings when not immediately confronted with the impact of our words.

There has been a disturbing decline in contemporary civil discourse. It doesn't seem to matter whether the topic is politics, education, or child-rearing; a large segment of the population is losing the ability to discuss controversial issues without resorting to hyperbole and insult. Social media do nothing to encourage reasonable and polite dialogue; instead, they make it easier to become petty and intolerant. Why listen to and consider the viewpoints of those who hold differing opinions? One can simply un-friend them. At its worst, such egotistical behaviour can devolve into bullying. Tragically, it has become almost commonplace to hear and read reports about adolescents who have been so devastated by online bullying that they die by suicide. Facebook and Twitter don't create bullies, but they do provide a forum in which some people can intimidate and humiliate others without having to take responsibility for the consequences of their cruelty. The anonymity of social media means there are few repercussions for destructive conduct. This can lead people who would otherwise never engage in persecution to behave in a reckless and vicious manner.

If social media exhibit and exacerbate our worst qualities, then why are so many people using them as their primary method of communication? Why are so many of us opting for shallow connections rather than meaningful interactions? Partly it's because we are working longer hours. If we live in the suburbs we spend a big chunk of our lives commuting. By the end of the day many of us are exhausted, and exhaustion, combined with the physical distances separating us from family and friends, leads us to withdraw. Social media offer us a quick fix. They allow those who have limited leisure time to easily communicate with friends and acquaintances. Those who lack the energy to navigate through complicated and intimate conversations may sustain relationships through short messages on uncontroversial topics.

When thoughts and feelings are shared, even if they are not discussed in depth, there is at least some sense of connection. In choosing not to engage with others directly, we may feel less isolated but we lose some of the benefits of friendship. "Likes," "followers," "friends" and "page views" are prominent features on most social media platforms, and each is experienced as a validation. Understandably, people (especially young people) want to be appreciated and acknowledged, but this desire can lead us to put forward a shallow, two-dimensional characterization of ourselves. The problem is: without an honest exchange of thoughts and feelings we seldom gain the warmth and acceptance that truly decrease loneliness.

I am not arguing we should abandon social media. That wouldn't fix the underlying causes of our Internet alienation. I am suggesting that it is time for our society to re-evaluate priorities. Social media can be a valuable tool when used to plan meetings, or to stay in touch with geographically distant friends and family. But we need to set boundaries for ourselves online and we need to be mindful that many of the shallow bonds formed over the Internet are a soulless imitation of more genuine attachments. Real change in our anti-social culture won't occur until we choose to prioritize relationships over work. However, we can certainly reduce the harm created by social media if we cultivate more honest and compassionate online personas. There is nothing to gain from becoming an island, even if it is easier to drift away.


Sophie Hanson is a Grade 11 student at Balmoral Hall High School in Winnipeg.


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