This awkward moment left me wondering whether I might have struck up a conversation with someone had I not instinctively reached for my phone. Was I really looking to see if I had a message from the friend who hadn’t arrived, or was I looking to escape the fact that I was having an awkward moment feeling alone amid a crowd of people? Could I possibly have formed a new connection with someone? Maybe I would have even noticed that my friend was just about 50 feet away from me, absorbed in his phone while waiting for me.
In her book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle looks at how devices and online personas are redefining human connection.
“The pull of these devices is so strong, that we’ve become used to them faster than anyone would have suspected,” says Turkle, a clinical psychologist and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. Her research investigates how devices are changing the way parents relate to their children, how friends interact, and why many people, both young and old, keep their devices in-hand all the time, even as they sleep. Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with temptation. Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication.
Some time ago, someone was talking to me about a young man they had known who was having a very difficult time socially. He was described as someone who, due to a learning disability and social clumsiness, was bullied in elementary school and then later became a bully in high school. He was never able to fit in comfortably with others and remained socially isolated until he discovered online gaming. In this context, his world became more level ground. He could communicate and compete with others and exist in a culture where his uniqueness and awkwardness were more or less a nonfactor. In this online world he had the chance to succeed like everybody else. In most ways this was a good development for him to discover an arena in which he could be successful. However his competence in the world of Internet does not make it any easier for him to enter a grocery store. It does not get him invited to social events. He has watched more movies than most, but has never been to a movie theater. He is an absolute wiz with computers, many forms of technology and social media but remains a very isolated and lonely young man.
There are many men, women and even children from all walks of life who are afflicted by this type of isolation and loneliness. Drawn by the ease of a quick text message or online chat, many fall prey to the illusion of companionship without having a person-to-person conversation. They sacrifice conversation and understanding for quick connection with the consequence being the loss of forming true closeness. Turkle asked teens and adults why they preferred text messaging over face-to-face conversation, they responded that when you’re face to face, “You can’t control what you are going to say, and you don’t know how long it’s going to take or where it could go.” But Turkle believes that these perceived weaknesses of conversation are actually conversation’s strengths. Face-to-face interaction teaches “skills of negotiation, of reading each other’s emotion, of having to face the complexity of confrontation, dealing with complex emotion.” She thinks people who feel they are too busy to have conversations in person are not making the important emotional connections they otherwise would.
While we have more and more convenient and rapid ways to communicate through technology, at some point we have to ask, are we losing something in this? Are Facebook friends really friends? By collecting so called friends and followers through Facebook and Twitter are we looking for approval in some kind of social media competition? Does not having to look into a person’s eyes give license to say anything even if it’s insensitive and rude? If we were really face to face would we share in the same way we do online? It may be that when we are face to face, (ironically Facebook is not face to face) we are inhibited from aggression and more considerate because of the actual presence of another person. We’re aware that we’re with a human being because their responses and expressions are visible. On the Internet, people are disinhibited from taking into full account that they are in the presence of another human being and are more inclined to say things they might never say if the person were facing them.
Digital connection can create the impression of being close to many, yet we may still feel alone.
Turkle states, “What is so seductive about texting, about keeping that phone on, about that little red light, is you want to know who wants you.” It is possible to be in constant digital communication and yet still feel emotionally disconnected and very much alone. It seems people of all ages are drawn to their devices for a similar reason: wanting connection and wanting to not feel so alone. Yet, while the digital connections can easily be made, establishing true friendship may require more.
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
Editor’s note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington, where he maintains a private practice providing therapeutic services to adults, couples, children, adolescents, and families.