Sitting in a restaurant at 6 p.m., one can observe many things: the thrush of a hungry crowd, the rich scent of roasting meats, or perhaps, a couple sitting in a booth, voraciously consumed — but not by each other.
Their faces are lit by the glowing of a four-inch piece of metal they’ve been sleeping with every night.
“It is now at a point where we eat, live and breathe Internet,” said Shyam Sundar, a Penn State Communications professor. “In many ways, we are in the Internet ecosystem and it is ubiquitous.”
We have comfortably integrated every aspect of technology into our daily lives. A text message, which once required great effort to type and send, can now be delivered within seconds of having a thought, and with the ease of an instinctual reflex.
With the integration of technology into human life, a focus becomes the expression of thoughts and ideas in customizable online forums.
“One of the trends we are seeing lately at least is a greater emphasis on self-expression tools,” Sundar said. “This is the main reason why Facebook and Twitter are so phenomenally popular. It’s 140 characters — that’s the constraint. But beyond that, it’s your sandbox. It’s your pulpit.”
With blogging platforms that allow personalization of virtually every detail right down to the color of HTML links, people take to broadcasting themselves throughout the web.
“The enduring trend is the degree to which the user himself or herself feels agency, that they themselves are a big part of the information universe,” Sundar said.
The positives of online social interactions can go on for pages and more. We contribute our thoughts and actions to the universe in a more tangible way, while constantly expanding our social reaches to places we have never even been. But how are we being affected by our own creations?
Sundar, who is the founding co-director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Penn State, along with his team, examines the effects of television, film entertainment, video games, online media and communications technology on various subjects.
Besides the potential for addiction, which can prove to be a problem according to Mary Anne Knapp, clinical social worker for Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services, there are further effects of social technology on human development and interactions.
“We found that people who text a lot tend to have poor grammar skills,” Sundar said. “We found that people who were on phones were less likely to engage in altruistic behavior. Like they wouldn’t help other people lift a box or help someone they see struggling. If we equip one group of people with a phone and another with no phones, the non-phone group was more likely to help. You do find all kinds of different pockets of negative effects.”
Furthermore, since the advent of personal technologies like the iPad and iPhone, “people don’t say ‘hi’ as much as they used to,” Sundar said.
However, this can be good or bad depending on the expectation. If people do not value greeting strangers over being connected to those they already know, it may not be a matter of concern.
“We could say that people are in touch with distant others while ignoring their proximate others,” Sundar said. “But my mind, negative effects are in the eye of the beholder.”
Essentially, negative effects of high Internet and social media usage are largely subject to personal values and expectations. However, these tools can be a way to amplify already-existing personality traits.
“These affordances, or action possibilities, of different features like the ‘like’ button, the comment field, or the status update will help users reflect their personality,” Sundar said. “So if you’re narcissistic, it can boost the volume on narcissism. If you’re the type of person who promotes other people or builds community with other people, then it can help you do those things.”
Sundar described online social pages as a “petri dish” for what we aspire to be in our offline lives, an experiment allowing us to ruminate if we wish to, but nonetheless one in which we are all participants.
“Studies have shown that highly extroverted people tend to be online as well, Sundar said. “It’s not like introverted people are online and extroverted people are socializing offline.”
Though social, personalized technologies tend to have drawbacks, generally, studies show that our offline lives are enhanced by our online interactions, Sundar said.
And — if things progress as they have historically — we’re not going to stop just there.
As augmented reality is more heavily researched and marketed, humans and our social interactions will be equally altered.
“We are becoming more and more hungry for information even though we are overloaded with it…the point is we want to be fed,” Sundar said. “We will evolve to process peripheral messages in a much more sophisticated way than we are currently able to.”
Collegian magazine editor Joshua Glossner contributed to this report.