With the spawning and spiraling of new technologies in the nineties the hope was that the virtual world would enhance the real world. And it has. We’re able to connect at greater speed, lower cost and reach out to people all over the globe. But there’s concern. Some are questioning the toll its taking on relationships. Since so many would rather text than talk, technology can take the place of face to face communication. The net result is underdeveloped communication skills, no time for self-reflection and no ability to negotiate conflict and conciliate differences. Despite the downside, devices can be addictive making it difficult to disconnect. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist from Stanford School of Medicine says she regularly talks with leaders at technology companies about these issues.
What underscores the seriousness of this concern is that top executives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and others (Silicon Valley Says Step Away From the Device, New York Times, July 23, 2012) are listening. Others too, are raising a red flag. In a review for the American Academy of Pediatrics experts said that “Facebook depression” is fast becoming a phenomenon. It surfaces when young people who spend a lot of time on social sites see themselves as shortchanged compared to their peer’s posts, pictures and friends. Add to that the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder’s (DSM V) is acknowledging “internet use disorder” as a potential mental health concern and we become more aware of the magnitude of the problem.
But I’m not surprised. I’m old enough to remember when talking on a cell phone in public was rude rather than the rule. But now iphones are common place in restaurants and even at face to face family meals. Alone together we stare down at our devices in cars, malls, corporate board rooms, churches and even funerals. What does this signal about our respect for people and our regard for friends? More to the point how does it shape relationships over time when we can’t look each other in the eye or see body language that social scientist Daniel Goldman (Emotional Intelligence) says comprises 90% of our communication?
According to MIT psychologist and author Sherry Turkle, we’re setting ourselves up for trouble. “Technology” she says, “gives the illusion of connecting without the demands of intimacy.” We’re opting for false intimacy over real time relationships that are messy and demanding. Because we want control without complication we clean them up with technology. So says Turkle, “we get to edit, we get to delete, we get to retouch, not too little not too much but just right.” If a relationship gets difficult we simply defriend.
But the seduction of simplicity could cost us something. Not only can the constant use of technology shortchange our relationships, but it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For it’s the ability to stop, look and listen to others and ourselves that’s foundational to the formation of relationships...with others and ourselves. Realizing this risk tech firms offer counterweights to these compulsions with mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises. Richard Fernandez, one of the leaders in the mindfulness movement said the benefits are “nothing less than everything” adding that if people can find the time to disconnect from their devices “they can have more intimate and authentic relationships with themselves and those we love in our communities.”
So if you’re texting more than talking here’s some helpful tips:
It’s not about getting rid of our devices Fernandez concludes, instead its “an internal compass where we’re able to balance the capabilities that technology offers us for work with the qualities of the lives we live off line. It’s about creating space...otherwise we can be swept away by our technologies.”