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UMaine Study: Frequent Social Media Posters Are Less Likely To Pick Up On Nonverbal Social Cues

A user of social media application software on a smartphone.
Towfiqu Photography/Getty Images

Are you one of those people who spams your social media contacts giving hundreds and hundreds of photos and minute-by-minute updates on how your artisan bread is rising? Well, a new University of Maine study has found that people who do that might not be as attuned to their friends as they think they are.

All Things Considered host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with researcher and psychologist, Mollie Ruben about the study. Mollie Ruben teaches psychology at the University of Maine and led the social media study, which has been published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mitchell: I understand you set out to prove one thing, and then you actually found something else.

Rubin: We were interested in how just overall screen time use on a smartphone was related to decoding skill, and what I mean by decoding is perceiving others' nonverbal cues accurately. In my field, we have tests and standardized ways to assess one's decoding ability. And so we really thought that if people were spending a lot of time on their smartphones, they weren't having as many face to face social interactions. So we thought that there could be a relationship there that more screen time use was going to be related to poorer perception of others' nonverbal cues. But what we ended up finding was something very different, we actually found no relationship between screen time use use and decoding of nonverbal cues, we found that how people were using their smartphones was really the main predictor of decoding ability or our ability to perceive others' nonverbal cues accurately.

Mitchell: So was the thinking, or the hypothesis, at first that the more you live virtually, like kind of staring down at your phone and, and not doing things face to face that those people would have less social ability or less ability to pick up on social cues. And you found that that was not the case. So what did you find?

That's exactly right. So what we did find is that well, people who consider themselves more active users on social media, so what we mean by that is they posted a lot of photographs and commented frequently, we're updating their stories on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, all those apps, they thought they self reported being better, or more highly skilled at perceiving others cues. But when we actually tested them with our standardized tests, they performed worse, while those who consider themselves more passive users, so tending to still spend time on social media, but really just reading through and looking at and watching videos of other people, they didn't report being better or worse. But when we tested them on our standardized tests, they performed better.

Mitchell: Doesn't this just support though, what we've all known forever, which is some people just don't like to listen, they like to tell. So can we glean anything from this? Does the social media itself have a role to play here? Or are these people who just missed social cues every day anyway?

I think that's a really interesting question, and an interesting place to go is; what is the profile of somebody who reports being a more active social media user? Right? Like, what are those people look like in their face to face interactions? Do they behave in that same way where they're taking up space, and they're not really attuned to other people in their environment? technologies obviously been studied for some time now. And nonverbal perception ability or decoding ability has been studied for some time now. But to marry the two and actually look at the relationship between those two things. It's still very new.

Mitchell: Why does this kind of research matter? And where are you hoping to take it next?

We really want to tie this to psychological well being and health. Perceiving others' nonverbal cues is a really important skill in our everyday life. And those who are more accurate at that ability. They tend to have better outcomes. They have better workplace outcomes, they make more money, they have better professional relationships, they have better social interactions. And so figuring out what facilitates that ability is really important.