A Poke and a Smile: Relationship Intimacy in the Age of Social Media
These days, virtually everyone owns a computer, smart-phone, or mobile device. Digital interaction is an integral part of our everyday routine. We check emails and texts, update our Facebook page, fire off a tweet or two, and then finish our morning coffee. Digital interconnectivity provides endless new opportunities to support our very human need for community and social interaction.
Innovations like Facebook, with over 500 million users, and Twitter, with over 300 million users, now allow real-time interactions with an increasingly wider and more diverse group of people. Best of all, friends and family too distant for regular contact just a few years ago can now be intimately folded into our lives. We make friends, we share our experiences, we celebrate, and we commiserate – one world, a growing interactive community.
For partners, spouses, and families separated for long periods of time by work or military service, the tech-connect boom is a godsend. Couples, children, and parents are now able to bond long-distance in real time, sharing a growing child’s latest milestone, and even engaging in visual intimacy via the webcams now routinely incorporated into computers and smart-phones.
And those not yet in a committed relationship can put technology to good use when home or traveling via e-dating, establishing and growing budding relationships with less of a focus on who lives where.
For those unfamiliar with the term “poke,” allow me to enlighten you. In the online social media world of Facebook there is a button that allows you to poke someone. When you poke them, an icon appears on their Facebook page letting them know they’ve been poked, and by whom.
The purpose of a virtual poke is the same as that of a real-world poke – to get someone’s attention without actually having to say anything, or, in the case of Facebook, write anything. If you’ve been poked, it means someone is thinking about you, likes you, thinks you’re a good person, thinks you’ve got a great new haircut, or whatever. It also means they have chosen not to engage you via more time-consuming methods like phoning, texting, emailing, instant messaging, or, heaven forbid, stopping by your house and knocking on the door.
So what is a poke worth? Is a poke a meaningful social interaction? I know what you may be thinking, but this is a serious question, especially if you are under 25 and grew up with social media as an ingrained part of your daily interactions. There are other questions, too.
Should a virtual relationship grow, as many do, beyond a simple poke? If so, how do you know which ones are healthy to maintain and grow? Can “virtual” intimacy be as healthy as a real-world relationship? Does it mean as much when Facebook reminds someone of your birthday as it does when someone actually remembers your birthday? These questions are particularly important for those already struggling with Internet or “real-life” social or intimacy deficits.
Generally speaking, healthy, successful relationships of all stripes involve:
- Physical affection, such as hugging, kissing, and embracing
- Respect, shown by taking an active interest in others, having empathy for their challenges, and championing their successes
- Offering support and lending a helping hand when needed, giving advice when asked, and providing unexpected acts of kindness
- Quality time devoted to evolving our connection to those we care about
- Valuing, validating, and recognizing who another person is and what they bring to the table
In at least a few of these areas, social media comes up short. Clearly there is no virtual equivalent to the warmth of a loving embrace, kiss, or intimate touch – though no doubt we will come to physically experience our loved ones’ embraces via electronic media in the days to come.
It is also more challenging, though not impossible, to be a fully empathic listener and advisor online, as Internet interactions lack the full range of feedback that comes in the physical presence of another person (though webcams can help). As for quality time, research shows a mirror relationship between the increased use of technology and decreased levels of quality interpersonal interaction – even among family members. Facebook may just be the new television in this regard.
Perhaps it is no surprise that seemingly benign social media sites like Facebook can become problematic for those predisposed to compulsive, impulsive and addictive behavior. Social media sites have, in fact, become a new (and socially acceptable) place to peruse intimate photos, gain personal information, seek out hot chats, and hook up for virtual or in-person sexual encounters.
Self-identified relationship and sexual addicts increasingly describe these networks as a primary location where they routinely “find themselves” lost in an obsessive search for sexual and/or romantic intensity.
Consider Janelle, a 29-year-old housewife and mother of two young boys, who takes great pride in being a good mom and having married an engaged and loving man. Sadly, Janelle grew up in an emotionally abusive, addictive family, a situation that lead to her losing much of her early adult life to active drug and alcohol addiction. Thankfully, after several years of involvement and hard work in therapy and AA, Janelle got sober and remained so for nearly seven years.
Recently though, feeling beyond bored and stuck at home with no one to talk to other than two toddlers, Janelle discovered Facebook. Initially she gratefully utilized this new media outlet to reconnect with old high school friends and distant family while at home with her kids. But one day – out of the blue – she received a poke and follow-up email from an attractive man she’d never met, asking her to chat online.
This simple communication triggered a cascade of unanticipated excitement she’d not felt since prior to getting sober. Within a few weeks Janelle was impatiently waiting for her husband to leave each day so she could go online and connect. Within a few months she found herself involved in a string of online affairs, distracted from parenting and having strong fantasies of hooking-up with some of her new online buddies.
A year and several anonymous sexual encounters later, Janelle relapsed with alcohol and cocaine while having a sexual encounter with a stranger met online. Today Janelle is in gender separate treatment for co-occurring addictions at The Ranch in Tennessee, working hard to understand how once again her life got away from her.
Social Interaction: Reformatted
Most people are familiar with Facebook. Twitter, however, is a newer form of social media that has taken the digital world by storm. On Twitter, users send social messages or “micro-blogs” up to 140 characters long. These messages are known as “tweets.” Tweets are read by “followers.” Followers are to Twitter what “friends” are to Facebook.
Like it or not, Facebook, Twitter, and related social media have already begun to irrevocably shift age-old paradigms of social (and cultural) interaction. For those whose lives have become deeply entwined in social media, feelings of self-worth can be tied to the number of Facebook friends and/or Twitter followers they have.
In therapy, they report feeling their emotional stability and self-esteem wax and wane in direct relation to how these virtual communities and individuals respond to each carefully phrased post and tweet. Losing a Twitter follower or having your numbers go down can feel devastating for some – the meaning of which can be undervalued or completely missed by an otherwise well-meaning clinician who is not well-versed in these media. Consequently, individuals suffering from depression or anxiety often find their conditions exacerbated by online interaction. And many an intimate relationship has ended badly because of one partner’s poor online boundaries and/or social media driven sexual acting out.
Perhaps it is time to consider a few social media guidelines:
- For those in intimate partnerships it may well be worth utilizing a joint social media account. Sharing one online world will likely lead to lively discussions about how the couple mutually experiences social media. This can bring the pair together not only physically, but emotionally. They can jointly decide who to be friends with, what pages to like, who to follow, and what they want to communicate to the world about their lives together. This can also help reduce the fear that one or the other partner might be cyber-straying while on an individual account.
- Parents of young children and teens should strongly consider a joint or family social media account for reasons similar to those above and the fact that this can serve as a healthy way to monitor a child’s online interaction.
- Individuals concerned about their online vulnerability to sexual or romantic overtures should consider a commitment to only friending (adding people to their social network) people they already know and like in the real world. Facebook and social media accounts can readily be set up to allow interactions only with previously known individuals. And, by the way, the competition to see who can amass the most Internet friends is over. Lady Gaga and Oprah won. End of story.
- For those who sadly evaluate their Twitter follower numbers as if Twitter was a social stock market, it is best to be reminded that Twitter is about building community with like-minded people and exploring the lives of others without governmental or media influence. Unless you utilize Twitter for business purposes, who cares how many people follow you? What matters is what the people you follow have to say and how the people who follow you respond to your thoughts and experience. By taking this stance, the twitterverse becomes a place of social engagement and enlightenment rather than a high-school-like popularity contest.
- Don’t discuss or air any relationship or personal problems on Facebook or Twitter. Ever. If you’re struggling with your spouse or a friend, discuss it with them directly, or in therapy, or with a member of the clergy, or in some other suitable non-social media venue.
- A good filter for what to and what not to post is the following: if these are ideas or images you would not want associated with you on your local evening news, then these ideas or images are not appropriate for social media.
- If you’re sick of social media, experiencing information overload, or your involvement online is a source of ongoing anxiety or despair, QUIT. Try interacting with friends and loved ones in person. You might just find that while you were busy online they actually missed you.
Ultimately, social media can enrich, enliven, and enlighten nearly every area of our lives from cooking tips to the Arab Spring. Maintaining contact with far-away friends and family, learning about new and interesting topics, and sharing our opinions and expertise are wonderful things. But social media has not as yet found a way to replace or fully replicate the social, physical, and relationship needs that are met when we engage face to face.
A healthy life requires balance, and an overdose of social media for an extended period can bring about unnecessary emotional, financial, relationship, and career consequences.
Robert Weiss is the author of three books on sexual addiction and Founding Director of the premiere sex addiction treatment program, The Sexual Recovery Institute. He is Director of Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. These centers serve individuals seeking sexual addiction treatment, love addiction treatment, and porn addiction help. Specifically, the Centers for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at The Ranch (CRSR) offer specialized intimacy, sex and relationship addiction treatment for both men and women in gender-specific, gender-separate treatment and living environments.
Follow Robert on Twitter @RobWeissMSW
Weiss LCSW, R. (2012). A Poke and a Smile: Relationship Intimacy in the Age of Social Media. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2012/04/intimacy-in-the-age-of-social-media/