Social media allows adolescents to stay in constant contact with peers, but may keep young people, particularly boys, from developing key interpersonal skills they need to successfully manage some aspects of their relationships the rest of their lives.
A new study by researchers at the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill and N.C. State University finds that when it comes to romance, the more adolescents communicate online with their boyfriends and girlfriends, the worse they manage conflict and asserting themselves in romantic relationships at a time when kids are developing complex interpersonal skills.
“With electronic communications, there are fewer interpersonal cues,” said Jacqueline Nesi, the lead author of the study and a doctoral student in clinical psychology in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “You’re not seeing facial expressions or using nonverbal communications. So, the predominant use of social media may limit the opportunity to practice in-person conversations that are crucial for adolescents, particularly boys, to develop important skills.”
Nesi and her colleagues studied 487 adolescents at two time periods, one year apart, to determine the proportion of time they spent communicating with romantic partners in person or on the phone, compared to using text messaging and social media sites. Then they assessed their levels of competence in two primary relationship skills: managing conflict and asserting their needs.
They found that adolescents who spent more time interacting online were not as skilled in those areas, from knowing how to stop arguments before they turn into a fight or understanding their partner’s point of view to telling partners things they don’t like about the relationship. Both boys and girls showed the effect, but it was worse for boys, Nesi said.
“Social media allows adolescents to be in touch with their peers 24/7. It’s a great vehicle to allow adolescents to feel like they’re connected to those who are most important to them in ways that people who grew up before the social media age can’t imagine,” said study co-author Mitch Prinstein, John Van Seters Distinguished Professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience and director of clinical psychology.
“But in the area of handling some of the tricky parts of relationships, it looks like the more adolescents are using these electronic forms of communication, the worse they’re doing over time in some of these traditional skills,” he said.
Nesi and Prinstein collaborated on the study with Sophia Choukas-Bradley, a UNC-Chapel Hill clinical psychology doctoral student, and Laura Widman, assistant professor of psychology at N.C. State.
Their research, “Technology-Based Communication and the Development of Interpersonal Competencies Within Adolescent Romantic Relationships: A Preliminary Investigation,” appears in the June 21 issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.