Online interaction ‘not a substitute for real life’, expert warns

A lack of social integration with people from different backgrounds is damaging social skills in younger people, research has suggested.

Insufficient social mixing means that 90% of teenagers are nervous about interacting with people who come from a different background from their own, a study found.

The report on “social intelligence” among adolescents also discovered that an increased use of social media did not lead to low social skills in the “real” world.

(Mary Altaffer/AP)

In fact, it found that teenagers who spent more time online were better able to make friendships in person, suggesting more internet use could actually support the development of social skills.

The research, carried out by King’s College London and the National Citizen Service (NCS), explored social intelligence – how we interact with each other based on our understanding of people’s emotions – in an increasingly diverse, technology-reliant and connected world and why it could become increasingly important for future generations.

Dr Jennifer Lau, researcher from King’s College London, said: “It is surprising to see that online interaction is positively linked to a young person’s social intelligence levels. This could be an indication that young people are using the internet as a platform to build relationships with others and to practice their social skills.

“However, while important as a means of practising social skills, online interaction is not a substitute for real-life interaction.

“Not only is online interaction associated with more loneliness in later life – as indicated by our research – this form of communication alone is not adequate in preparing young people for the challenges of the workplace.”

More than two-thirds of adolescent peer groups were found to be made up of people from similar backgrounds, and the study recommended social mixing should play an “integral part” in developing social intelligence among teenagers.


Six in 10 adolescents admitted to sometimes feeling lonely, and the study suggested that failing to develop social intelligence skills when young could lead to increased loneliness and reduced wellbeing later in life.

But higher levels of social intelligence were found to be beneficial in the workplace, potentially boosting earning potentials by up to 30%.

Natasha Kizzie, from the NCS Trust, said: “We know sometimes there is a nervousness amongst young people towards meeting people from different backgrounds.

“It is therefore important to build young people’s social skills within their peer groups before giving them the confidence to break out of these groups in environments where they feel comfortable to do so.”

She added: “Although our workplaces and communities are becoming more and more globalised, connected and diverse, social trust between different cultures and social mobility is still a huge issue.

“In order for the next generation to successfully navigate this changing environment, we need to build social skills sets from a young age.”

The NCS is a government-backed programme set up in 2011 to tackle social cohesion, engagement and mobility in young people.

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