The End Of Togetherness?

My Mom is a stickler for manners. A big part of manners for her are the social graces. A firm handshake. Looking people in the eyes. Acknowledging others, saying hello, and basically being socially engaged and present with our fellow human beings. Anything else was simply rude and not to be tolerated. Old school? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be.

The rules of social engagement are certainly changing. Technology has diverted our attention and energy from people to devices and it’s having a profound affect on social behavior. The new generations are growing up with technology and digital social interaction is their norm. But it’s not just the millennials. Studies indicate it transcends any single demographic. Here in Manhattan, people walk down the streets often oblivious to one another, noses buried in cell phones, talking to ghosts, texting, or blocking out the sounds of the city with music. Couples dine together at restaurants, each focused on their phone.  Families dine with the kids buried in their digital companions. No one talks. People get on elevators avoiding contact by checking email, or texting. Teens get together but remain solitarily engaged with their devices, often texting the friend right next to them. We hide behind our technology, desensitizing our ability to read facial expressions, body language or individual energy. And Mom would not approve.

Some would argue that technology has enhance social communications but research shows that, despite 24/7 communication online or via text messages, our willingness to relate to real people in the moment, face-to-face, is dying. All of the signs point to it. We don’t call. We text. We don’t write, we post. We are umbilically connected to our devices and many believe our always-on, wired mentality will actually impair cognitive abilities.

Sherry Turkle is the Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self where they study and interpret mood feeling and sensitivities of human interactions. She states, “This is a complex dance that we know how to do to each other.” A dance she fears is being forgotten because of technology. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle discusses the “pervasive and narcissistic use of technology that is fueling disturbing levels of isolation, leaving us incapable of distinguishing the difference between true human connection and digital communication.  The downside? We lose the raw, human part of being with each other”.

Dr James Roberts of Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business in Texas, found that technology is eroding our personal relationships. He said that “Getting hooked on a mobile phone is similar to other addictions, such as compulsive buying”. Roberts cited that the compulsive use of a cell phone is just as addicting as compulsive spending or credit card misuse. The study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that in addition to sending over 100 texts a day, students are also checking their phone up to 60 times a day. This results in about seven hours a day spent interacting with information and communication technology rather than in making personal, human contacts.

In a series of studies in 2012 by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the Essex University, found the phone is an inhibitor to human interaction. Social interaction based on technology tends to decrease closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy — the building-blocks of relationships. New research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect yet actually inhibit our ability to connect with people right next to us.