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Towson professor explores whether social media have left us disconnected

Towson professor explores whether social media have left us disconnected
Towson University students Yulia Kolomenskaya (left); Theresa Braun; and Rachel Droter send text messages as part of a "vulnerability experiment" in Andrew Reiner's seminar, The Search for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook. Students are sharing something that makes them feel vulnerable. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Towson University professor Andrew Reiner is concerned that the desire to be "liked" online has bled into the real-life interactions of some of his students. He wants to change that.

Reiner, a lecturer in English in Towson's Honors College, says students sometimes pretend to send text messages when they are alone out of fear that if they are not constantly connected to their smartphones, they will be seen as losers.

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Students in his classes often seem hesitant to disagree with each other, he says — a development he attributes to their need to attract as much approval in real life as they get online. And he believes their careful curation of their identities on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has made it difficult for them to connect with their peers on a deeper level.

In his course "Alone Together: Finding Intimacy in the Age of Facebook," Reiner, 50, is asking students this fall to explore whether technological advances and social media have left them more isolated from each other and less able to connect in real life.

It's a question Reiner — twice chosen professor of the year by Honors College students, and twice named best professor by the campus newspaper — has posed nationally. In a column that appeared in The New York Times in February, he asked: "How do we teach a generation how to love?"

Such writing has drawn some criticism.

"Maybe, as Reiner suggests, we should offer college courses on love, wherein a wise professor trains the youth in the secrets of intimacy," Katy Waldman wrote in Slate. "Because if anything can get kids' hearts beating again, it is clueless adults waxing nostalgic about the good old days."

But some of his students think his concerns ring true in their lives.

"People use technology to be somebody that they can't be in person," said Caitlin Rose, a 22-year-old senior from Columbia. "Some people only post things on Facebook that make them look a certain way. You think: 'I only want to put stuff up that makes me look happy.' I think a lot of people end up using it as a mask."

Reiner, who has been teaching at Towson for nine years, believes that social media have set people apart rather than brought them together. They dodge situations that they believe will make them feel emotionally vulnerable, he says, and rely on alcohol and hookups to make shallow connections.

"So much about social media is about saying and being in ways that are very, very socially acceptable and desirable," Reiner said in an interview. "It's this way of being that we see everyone else doing, so we want to fit in. Social media, there's no vulnerability there. There's no exposure of a deeper part of the self.

"Where the problem comes in is when we bring a lot of those same sensibilities that we have online to our private lives. And if we have problems exposing ourselves to others, it becomes a problem in the relationships we enter into."

Academics and others have long debated the impact of social media and technology on human relationships, and whether Millennials have become more narcissistic and lost in the hookup culture of relationships based on casual sex.

Some argue the members of Generation Y are less empathetic and more selfish than previous generations; others argue the opposite. Some say those who use Facebook excessively are more prone to breakups in their relationship, but whether Facebook is the actual cause is unclear.

The students in Reiner's course begin class by sitting on the floor and meditating in silence for a few minutes. Then, sometimes, he leads them in experiments.

On a recent day, 14 students bowed in intense concentration over their smartphones. Reiner's instruction: Post on social media or text a message that you normally wouldn't. Something that makes you vulnerable.

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Rose sent a text. Then she told the class that the experience gave her an "epiphany" that she was too often not truly honest in sharing her feelings with others.

"Now I have no idea what this person is about to say to me, and I'm about to lose it," she said.

Some students said they felt relieved at getting something off their chests. One student said she posted about feeling stressed on her blog, which she usually uses to spread positive messages. Another student said she emailed her boss.

LaRoz' Leggett, a 19-year-old sophomore from Charles County, said she texted her 17-year-old brother about wanting to have a better relationship. Later, she said it brought them closer.

Rose did not want to elaborate on the text message she sent in class. But she said the outcome was positive, even if the experience was nerve-wracking.

She said she also felt more confident in herself after allowing herself to be vulnerable.

"I actually developed the relationship that I had with this person to a deeper, more meaningful level," she said. "It went from a superficial place to this person getting to understand more about me."

Reiner is planning another class experiment he calls "eating alone," in which students go to a public place and eat by themselves without using technology, coursework or other people to distract them.

Rose says technology has made it more difficult to connect with people on a deeper level. She says she often feels obligated to pull out her smartphone because everyone around her is immersed in one, and she laments that sometimes dinners are interrupted by people trying to get the perfect picture to post to social media.

Walking around campus, she says, people nearly run into her because they are staring at a phone.

Leggett, who is studying psychology, says she once nearly ran into a pillar. She knows another student who was so immersed in her smartphone that she fell down a hill.

"If you're just standing around and looking lonely, you don't look like you're connected, you don't look like you're in this generation," she said. "But that's just a stereotype. Half the time people are looking at nothing."

Reiner warns that young people spend so much time thinking about how they will be perceived by others that they can lose their sense of self. He says the conformity sometimes manifests in "superficial ways," such as tattoos.

"When you get older you realize it's all smoke and mirrors," Reiner said.

Sara Raley, a sociology professor at McDaniel College who studies sexuality and gender issues, including the hookup culture, says she finds Reiner's ideas intriguing.

Raley says she often discusses similar issues with her students. But she adds that the challenges of leaving oneself vulnerable to others and the problems with "editing" aspects of one's personality depending on the setting are nothing new.

"The struggle to connect with others is something philosophers have written about for ages," she said. "I think social media complicate it in ways in which it wasn't complicated before."

Raley said young people are aware that social media can influence or complicate their relationships.

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"I don't think they're oblivious to the idea that social media has a lot of superficiality about it," she said. "I think a lot of them are aware of the complexity and weirdness of Facebook."

Reiner says he's no Luddite. He says social media can be useful, so long as they don't consume real-life experiences.

The problem, he said, is "when we become too consumed with taking the moments we have with friends or family or lovers, and we spend so much time taking the right photos that we can send into cyberspace. In my class we say just put your phone down and enjoy the moment."

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