Although social media allows adolescents to stay in constant touch with each other, social interaction behind a screen rather than in real life could be preventing teens from developing the skills they need to manage healthy relationships later in life suggests a new US study.
Carried out by a team of researchers from the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill and NC State University, the study looked at 487 adolescents at two time periods, one year apart, to assess how much time they spent communicating with romantic partners in the more traditional ways of in-person or on the phone, or by using the more high-tech ways of text messaging and social media sites.
The researchers then assessed the teens' levels of competence in two key relationship skills: managing conflict and asserting their needs. They found that those who spent more time interacting online had lower levels of competence in both areas.
Both boys and girls showed a lack of skills in areas such as knowing how to stop arguments before they turned into a fight, understanding their partner's point of view, or communicating to their partners the things they didn't like about the relationship, with the effect particularly strong for boys.
Adolescence is a key time for developing these complex and important interpersonal skills.
However technological advances mean that "With electronic communications, there are fewer interpersonal cues," explained lead author of the study Jacqueline Nesi, adding, "You're not seeing facial expressions or using non-verbal 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."
Study co-author Mitch Prinstein also added that although social media enables teens to be in touch constantly and feel more connected, "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."
The findings were published on in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.