Lynne West: Being connected makes us disconnected

My 17-year-old son told me the other night that it’s easy to be alone these days.

We were discussing the constant use of his mobile device during the special weekly dinner dates we’d promised one another following a difficult time in our lives.

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I was annoyed at the incessant interruption; when he wasn’t fiddling with the thing, it beeped, pinged and rattled on the restaurant’s laminate tabletop.

My annoyance, along with his comment about feeling un-lonely, launched a debate about the pros and cons of digital communications.

My son made a good argument. He told me he feels connected when he plays online games, and in touch when he is texting his friends or sharing pictures on Instagram.

He doesn’t believe technology changes the way he interacts with his friends or family during face-time, or that it will ever turn him into a recluse who avoids situations that require tough, emotional interaction.

But in the middle of the debate, his cellphone beeped and after a few moments of grinning and thumbing replies, he put the device down, looked up and said: “Sorry, Mom. Where was I?”

Exactly! He was not with the person sitting directly across from him.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that digital media have significantly affected society. A video on the Internet begins: “I have 422 [Internet] friends, yet I am lonely … ”

Lonely? How can that be? How can a person with more than 400 Internet friends be lonely? Why, with the ability to find companionship 24/7 with the single click of a mouse, do studies conducted by psychology and neuroscience professor John Cacioppo show that 40 per cent of people in society today feel lonely — double the percentage in 1980?

Many scholars argue that social media cause loneliness while others believe they help the lonely by curbing feelings of isolation. While these debates exist, a consensus predominates.

When regular Internet users engage online, a phenomenon known as displacement occurs whereby the time spent in cyberland ultimately replaces the time spent elsewhere, such as in the company of flesh-and-blood people.

And that’s a problem.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle believes that while electronic interaction seems to simulate love and friendship, digital relationships tend to be superficial and weak-tied. They lack feelings of affection and commitment.

Turkle believes technology is used to curb boredom, bridge conversation gaps and satisfy the need for constant validation for every thought.

This constant validation, better known as instant gratification or, according to Freud, the pleasure principle, stimulates the brain’s impulsive side to act before the brain’s rational, reasonable and moral side has the opportunity to intervene.

Not only does digital technology satisfy the craving for instant gratification, it allows us to pick, choose and edit the messages we send and receive.

Instead of facing the challenges that accompany human-to-human communications, we choose interactions that please us and are easy, and avoid uncomfortable situations.

This inevitably pushes us away from the ability to deal with life’s harsher realities.

While we have never been so well informed, educated and up to date, each click, post and text reduces emotional richness.

Beyond missing important life skills such as conflict management and critical thinking, we are also losing the ability to cope with the challenges that come from difficult discussions and intimate companionship. We think we’re relating, but we’re not. We’re becoming a society disconnected.

But what of those who love technology?

Here is the advice that I give myself: It’s easy to forget social networking is a communication tool instead of a substitute for reflection and intimacy. Whether alone or in the company of a friend, silence is OK. So is awkwardness or anger or boredom or, yes, even loneliness.

Appreciate that it’s not the quantity of friends you have, but the quality of the few that matter.

Moments matter, too. Never let the pings of a digital device steal those special times, especially the weekly dinner dates that are shared with your son.

Lynne West is a Victoria writer.

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