Technology is enchanting – addicting, even. But does it make us forget about our true values? About the most important elements of life? We are replacing our real relationships for technological communication and superficial relationships. Even when we get together with friends for dinner, studies have shown that the mere presence of a phone on the table (even if the phone is silenced) changes the course of the conversation around the dinner table. The phone signals, subconsciously or consciously, that the conversation might be interrupted due to a phone call, text, or other notification, so it leads people to keep the conversation light. A phone on the table is more likely to diminish controversial subjects or the proclamation of deep thoughts because the visual of a phone decreases empathy. People feel less connected to each other when a phone is present (in sight, on a table, in someone’s hand, etc.) than if there is no phone. This strained empathy leads to a diminished satisfaction with life, decrease in work efficiency, and fewer personal conversations in public. Phones make it difficult to pay attention to each other.
In addition to the lack of personal connection with others, technology also inhibits our ability to know ourselves. Whenever we are bored or have downtime, we reach for our phones out of habit to check social media, emails, or text messages to see if we’ve missed anything interesting. This habit has become second nature for most people. The consequence of this is that we are afraid of being by ourselves – being left alone with our own thoughts. Even waiting in line at the grocery store can entice someone to reach for their cell phones as a way of passing the few short minutes before it’s time to check out with the cashier. Sitting with our own thoughts serves as a way to build self-confidence, self-reflection, creativity, and empathy for others. When we cut ourselves off from solitude and self-reflection, we aren’t giving our brains a chance to relax or to process external circumstances. Even though it seems like down-time when we are scrolling through social media and not interacting with anyone, it doesn’t serve the same purpose as sitting in silence alone and mentally regrouping.
In her book Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle explores the consequences of perpetual use of social media and how technology has changed our ability to converse with each other. It’s commonsensical because we’ve all seen people sitting at a table with other people where each individual is looking down at a cell phone. Yet do we fully realize the extent of the dangers and negative side-effects of this seemingly small act of constant interaction with our cell phones? Turkle explains research on the presence of digital communication and how it has caused a 40% decline in empathy among college students in the past 20 years. She addresses the concerning correlation between technology and social media with depression and social anxiety. The transition from true conversations to superficial, technological conversations leads to a plethora of unintended consequences.
Older generations recognize the impersonal nature that technology spurs. Yet younger generations have no example with which to compare it – these children are growing up with friends constantly on their phone, ignoring people right in front of them in favor of conversing with someone via technology. According to Turkle, it’s an unrealistic expectation for a young person in today’s world to have a friend devote his/her undivided attention during a conversation due to the impulses and attractions to be constantly engaged with our phones/technology.
Turkle notes that current college graduates aren’t well-prepared to work in a social setting after growing up with a constant barrage of technological conversation. For example, while the new, college graduate employees may be bright, employers report that recent college graduates don’t know how to interact with other employees well. Young employees have anxiety about talking on the phone, they don’t know how to begin or end conversations, and they have a difficult time making eye contact – according to Turkle’s research. So, in a world of technological advancement, are we depriving people of the skills they need in order to develop friendships and initiate conversations in the public realm?
To address the problem of reduced social skills, there are now apps that help people increase their sociability. How ironic is that!? When we know that frequent use of social media and technology leads to negative personality traits, why isn’t there more being done to promote alone time? A love of solitude and self-reflection that paves the way for self-confidence and sociability should take precedence over “sociability apps”. But in today’s world, is it easier to create an app or invent a new piece of digital technology than to teach kids (and adults!) how to have a fulfilling conversation with someone? Probably.
To counteract technology’s influence on our development, I believe that promoting solitude is a positive first step. Solitude doesn’t mean being “lonely” or “bored”. Solitude involves bringing your focus back to yourself to recharge. Developing a capacity for solitude will help prevent the constant urge to check social media to ensure we aren’t missing anything; solitude helps us remain still instead of reaching for our phones. Solitude helps people to stay focused on one task rather than multitasking with multiple apps and web pages. (Multitasking degrades our performance and makes us less productive. Multitasking is also associated with depression, social anxiety, and ineffective reading of human emotions). According to Turkle, research has proven that if we become more comfortable with our vulnerabilities (eg. more comfortable being still, silent,
and not constantly occupying our downtime time with technology) then we will become more creative, happier, and more productive! If you are comfortable with yourself (silence and all!) then you have a deeper ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This skill enhances creative thinking and empathy according to developmental psychologists.
Turkle writes, “It is only when we are alone with our thoughts – not reacting to external stimuli – that we engage part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past. This it the default mode network. So, without solitude, we can’t construct a stable sense of self. Yet children who grow up digitally have always had something external to respond to. When they can’t go online, their minds are not wandering, but rather, are captured and divided. These days, we may mistake time on the net for solitude. It isn’t. In fact, solitude is challenged by our habit of turning to our screens rather than turning inward.”
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