Friends you make online aren’t any less important than friends you make face-to-face; online social interaction is still genuine social interaction. However, studies have suggested that there is a difference and it isn’t yet clear how increased online usage is affecting the next generation. Of particular interest is the social intelligence of young people, which is being tested in different situations than the generations that came before. A new report from Dr Jennifer Lau of King’s College London has investigated this issue by combining data from previous studies and new work on young people and adults. The findings suggest that the current generation of young people need additional support for their own sake and for the UK economy.
Although IQ tests aren’t to be relied upon (never read too much into them), individual intelligence is obviously a real thing and theoretically it could be measured. IQ isn’t everything though and not just in the sense that there’s more to life than being smart. Individual intelligence simply isn’t the only type of intelligence. We’re a social species and nearly everything we do involves interactions with our fellow carbon-based bipeds. Our ability to interact with each other and navigate social situations relies on our social intelligence.
Social intelligence ties closely with another important aspect of intelligence: emotional intelligence. When you judge how someone is feeling and then modify your behaviour as a result, you’re using both social and emotional intelligence to navigate social interactions by understanding peoples’ emotions. All of this comes together almost every day for most people and is especially important in the workplace. We develop our social intelligence skills as young people and the evidence suggests this early development can affect our well-being later in life.
Young people today are facing different social situations than older generations did. Firstly, in the past we only had face-to-face interactions and usually with people we know. Now we use a host of methods (email, social networks, messaging apps, forums etc) to interact with a very large number of people we don’t know. Secondly, our society is becoming increasingly globalised and the internet is playing its part. In the UK we’re being exposed to people from different countries and backgrounds more than ever and need to be able to interact with them.
Dr Lau claims that it’s more important than ever for young people to be developing social intelligence skills since the UK is more tech-reliant, connected, and diverse than ever. However, the report has found that the internet might be both helping and hindering that development. On the plus side, online interaction doesn’t seem to ruin social intelligence; actually the opposite was found. There was a correlation between online usage and the ability to form friendships. Unfortunately, online usage also correlated with loneliness and mental health conditions later in life.
Online vs meatspace
It seems that young people practice social interaction online and it does help to an extent, but it isn’t a replacement for face-to-face socialising. Especially worrying is that the report found 2 out of 3 young peer groups are made up of people from similar backgrounds and 9 out of 10 young people report being nervous about interacting with people from different backgrounds.
As ever, parents and schools are seen as having a responsibility to set things right by improving the social intelligence skills of young people. The report proposes that schools focus on social mixing to help combat the fact that the peer groups of many parents can be closed to people from different backgrounds.
Loneliness and mental health conditions were also worryingly associated with online usage. Loneliness is usually associated with older people in studies but this report found that 6 out of 10 young people reported being lonely occasionally and 1 in 20 didn’t see friends outside of school. The report highlights the importance of developing social intelligence to reduce the loneliness and mental health conditions that can arise later in life.
If young people want to confidently navigate the workplace and improve their future well-being, they need to exercise their social intelligence and online interactions only go so far. The report isn’t scaremongering the rise of the internet; remember the correlation between online usage and making friends. The problem is that it might not provide all the development necessary and might need to be supplemented with face-to-face interactions to avoid loneliness and future integration problems.
According to the report, a lack of social integration costs the UK economy £6 million each year. With the UK being more diverse than ever, schools should be making sure that young people are comfortable and skilled at interacting with people from different backgrounds. The key seems to be a balance; using the internet a lot but also working on offline social skills should set people up for better integration and mental well-being later in life.
Main image © iStock/mixmike