Are you secretly dreading the day when social distancing is just a vague memory? When you once again have to physically interact with other people, whether you like them or not? Chances are you are not a social deviant or a freak, but a representative of the new normal.
The long-established preference for, and mastering of, face-to-face interaction with other people is considered tantamount to a high level of social functioning. Conversely, the image of a person with low social functioning is one who avoids physical contact, peering out at the real world through a (digital) keyhole. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but it points to the fact that, while society at large has undergone a massive digital transformation in recent decades, the theories that define “normal” in human interaction are still moored in the physical world.
The reason is that the physical world is the most desirable of worlds because theories about normal human behavior were developed back when the internet was still a pipe dream and over a decade before social media tore apart our social fabric.
An analogy from the car industry would be measuring how much we drive by looking at fuel usage alone. While this made sense in the nineties, it would be downright wrong today, given the explosive growth of electric cars in recent years. Similarly, the measures we have implemented for social interaction lack precision and are inadequate in describing contemporary patterns of “normal” social behavior and preferences. In other words, we need to rethink normal.
It’s All about Matchmaking
In order to find out more about “the new normal”, we implemented a large-scale, qualitative, in-depth investigation of 82 young individuals’ experiences with current social life, aiming to develop an empirically informed theoretical model of face-to-face and social media interaction (Bjornestad et al., 2020). Our research question was: How do young people experience and practice social interaction after the added complexity brought about by social media?
Put simply, our research shows that people are different. It shows that, while most of us prefer and enjoy a combination of the physical and digital worlds, others actually prefer the digital realm, reporting that they feel more in control and are freer to express themselves in social media. At the other end of the scale, people in our study talked about digital unease and that they felt safer and more in touch with themselves in the physical world and would opt to go offline if they could.
We used the results to develop a model of social interaction in the age of social media that adds four modes to the traditional face-to-face convention. These modes are characterized by match or mismatch between the preferred and actual social platform. In the matched modes, individuals prefer and use both face-to-face and social media flexibly or they prefer and use face-to-face or social media exclusively.
Not surprisingly, we found that many people who live their entire social lives in digital platforms felt that this fulfilled their relational needs and allowed for strong friendships — as long as the medium was in accordance with their personal preferences and skills. In other words, as long as there is a match between preferences and the social platform, people are by and large content.
However, the people who prefer face-to-face interaction, but have surrendered to social media and vice versa (mismatched modes), reported that they struggled and were unhappy with their situation. Hence, our proposition is that good social functioning is all about how well you match the social platform, rather than which platform is better for good social functioning.
As obvious as it may seem, these findings are somewhat radical in the field of social behavior studies. So what? People are people, right? Well, everyone knows that. But science is a double-edged sword that, if not continually cared for and sharpened, may lead to unnecessary suffering. For people diagnosed with severe mental illness, for instance, false low social functioning scores could lead to a false positive psychiatric diagnosis, followed by incorrect or excessive treatment. Incorrect treatment may sound innocuous, but the consequences can be severe, including exposure to strong medication and excruciating and irrelevant therapies. In other words, you would be treated as if you were sick, when all you are is different.
The New Normal
The COVID-19 pandemic challenges our world in ways we may never be able to fully grasp. The only thing we can say for certain is that things will never return to the “normal” of the past. Some say we have reached a tipping point in human history and that we now have a historical opportunity to choose how to proceed. Will we use it to build walls and wage war on everything and everyone different from ourselves or will we enter into an era of increased collaboration and deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings? This is not for us to say, but our small contribution to the latter scenario in what we hope will be the legacy of COVID-19 is this: Being social is not about a willingness to engage with others, but about how well you match your social platform. That we are all different. And that’s okay.
Bjornestad, J., Moltu, C., Veseth, M., & Tjora, T. (2020). Rethinking Social Interaction: Empirical Model Development. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(4), e18558.
- Associate Professor of psychology and clinical psychologist Jone Bjornestad 1,2
- Professor of psychology and clinical psychologist Christian Moltu 2
- Associate Professor of psychology and clinical psychologist Marius Veseth 3
- Associate Professor of psychology and clinical psychologist Tore Tjora 1
- Department of Social Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway
- Department of Psychiatry, District General Hospital of Førde, Førde, Norway
- Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway