Brief overview of virtual relationships - implications for Businesses with ASD programs


Social media creates an interactive platform that millions of people all over the world use to share content and form relationships. Given the incredible size and influence of social media, it seems that we are dealing with a whole new communications landscape. Humans are social animals who need interaction and collaboration skills to survive thus predisposing us to a desire to have social bonds with others. Social interaction and support have been linked to a variety of positive outcomes for physical and mental health (Blakemore, 2012) whereas isolation and ostracism have been linked to depression and other negative effects (Wesselmann & Williams, 2017). Those with autism have an especially difficult navigating the waters of social expectations and rules. This article aims to explore the differences between virtual and non-virtual relationships, what are the benefits and drawbacks, and finally what implications does it have for businesses who have employees with autism.


Millennials use online communications just as much as face-to-face methods (Reich et al., 2012). The shift towards social media has led some social psychologists to believe digital communication has displaced face-to-face interaction among adolescents (Boyd, 2014). There are several ways that virtual interactions can be distinguished from those occurring face to face. The first being that networks typically have only partial interlap. Most people have more friends who they regularly interact with on social networks than in person. It is easy to have many online conversations at once and even participate in activities with those who they have never met. This could not be said for face-to-face interactions where time, location, and travel are limiting factors to how many people we can meet in person. A unique aspect of online relationships is that strong social bonds can form with individuals that they have never physically met.


For those who do have similar friend networks online and in-person, the nature of digital communication still may be qualitatively distinct from face-to-face communication, especially when it comes to social cues. Virtual interactions rely upon asynchronous text-based exchanges that eliminate social cues such as body language, physical touch, and facial expressions that lead to psychological distance and inconsistencies (Spies et al., 2014). Even if someone texts a smiling emoji, it does not necessarily reflect their real psychological state. As in-person cues are replaced with pictures and acronyms (e.g. “lol,” “brb”, “ttyl”), children are growing up learning a new social media language alongside their in-person interactions. Whether this trend is beneficial or not is debatable.


On one hand, the physical distance and traditional social cues of virtual relationships may lead to less emotionally fulfilling exchanges which hampers positive expression (Kowalski et al., 2014). Real emotions are easier to hide behind a screen; ignoring someone is much easier over the internet than real life. Hence, most online interactions are inherently more ambiguous. Compliments may come off as more shallow through a text message since an in-person exchange can be accompanied by hugs and smiles that serve as additional positive social reinforcements. Similarly, “liking” another user's post does not give a person the same form of approval a friend can give in-person. Forming memories online through playing video games, for example, rather than spending time together in person may not allow teens to develop more meaningful relationships that result from meeting each other's families, learning how to compromise when travelling together or sharing a meal. This may stunt a teens emotional development and have adverse effects on their social skills later in life when they are looking to network for a job or communicating with professors and co-workers.


On the other hand, social media interactions may allow shy individuals to develop confidence and become more relaxed and warm, potentially leading to more supportive exchanges in non-virtual situations (Indian & Grieve, 2014). Indian & Grieve found that in individuals with social anxiety, Facebook support, and not offline support, was able to reduce their symptoms. Those who struggle navigating traditional social networks can benefit greatly from using their social avatar instead of physically being present. Responding on their own time and using pictures to accompany their texts can actually make their intentions more clear. Furthermore, virtual tools are a key component in providing many individuals with autism, a social learning disability, a chance to break down social cues in order to build communication skills. Since virtual interactions already strip away factors such as eye-contact and intonation of voice, building these online relationships provide the building blocks for successful in-person relationships. Businesses should implement more social media-mediated training for their employees. This would promote positive social development in those with ASD, especially at the start of the their careers. Encouraging other co-workers to be verbal and active in giving workers diagnosed with autism would also promote a better environment for all.


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