A moment of Zhen: Social media vs. reality

Ever been to an awkward party?

I know I have. Picture about a dozen teenagers with their faces buried in their phones, thumbing through their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram newsfeeds and pretending to be preoccupied. Besides the clicking vibrations emanating from phone keyboards, the room resonates with a distinct silence. No one wants to break it.

Talk about awkward. Yet this phenomenon is all too familiar, whether it’s at a party, at a restaurant or simply in our everyday lives. Engrossed in status updates, 140-character tweets and selfies, we unconsciously neglect those around us. Absorbed in the virtual world, we slowly begin to lose sight of the real world.

Without a doubt, social media has permeated our generation. Almost every single Central student I know uses at least one form of social media. I’m no exception. As a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram user, I know that social media holds tremendous power. Social networks connect us with people from all over the world, rekindle relationships and help us stay up-to-date with the news and the lives of our family and friends. But too often, social media can do the opposite of its purpose—destroy real, human interaction.

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m a technology and social media lover, and I’m not afraid to admit that I use social media on a regular basis. Facebook allows me to collaborate with friends on school projects and activities, meet future college classmates and stay up-to-date with how my friends are doing even when I don’t see them on a regular basis. Twitter is a major source for my news and entertainment. On Instagram, I can create and share a digital photo album and explore my friends’ photo stories.

What I am saying, though, is that we can’t allow our virtual footprints to overtake our realities. The danger comes when we begin to value our social media presence more than our physical presence, when online messages and flashing newsfeeds take away from time with family and friends, when we focus so much on social media that we neglect the environment around us.

We cannot zero ourselves in on a tiny screen. Instead, we should open ourselves up and embrace the massive world and what it offers.

When given the option of communicating in-person or through social media, we should always opt for actual human interaction. A UCLA study concluded that over 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal, so when we choose to text over engaging in face-to-face conversation, we are essentially ignoring 93 percent of our potential to communicate effectively. Granted, texting, Facebook messaging and tweeting are convenient and easy forms of communication, but when your friends are in the same room, why text them when you can actually have a meaningful, face-to-face chat?

In the professional world, the ability to communicate orally and speak in public is essential. As teenagers, hiding behind our computers and phone screens means that we are losing the wonderful opportunity to exercise our verbal communication skills. Furthermore, most companies consider using cell phones during business meetings rude and distracting, as it distracts employees from listening carefully to important discussions.

Outside of the professional world, misusing social media can deteriorate relationships with family and friends. Personally, I’m guilty of feeling the urge to check my phone immediately when it vibrates, even when I’m spending time out with family. When going out to dinner with friends, sometimes we have to force ourselves to place our phones in the middle of the table to resist the urge of using them.

This desire to respond to social media notifications and messages immediately is almost wired into my brain. Hearing a vibration or seeing my phone screen light up triggers an instant response in me.

In reality, responding instantly isn’t necessary. Ninety-nine percent of the time, answering a text can wait. On the other hand, the quality time I get to spend with my family and friends is limited. With our busy schedules and our hectic, fast-paced lives, we have to let go of social media to truly embrace the moment with our loved ones. More than half of my awkward family parties were awkward simply because everyone was on their phones, silently refusing to talk to each other. I can’t help but imagine how much I could have learned about my family friends by simply putting away my phone for a few hours and actually talking to them.

As a whole, social media has revolutionized the way we think and communicate positively, but at the end of the day, we have to remember that social media is not the real world.

So here’s my challenge for you: turn off your cell phone the next time you hang out with your loved ones.

Maybe, just maybe, there will be fewer awkward parties. Life is too short not to enjoy every moment.