Wired For Less Wire

Posted: October 17, 2013
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In a recent article, I argued that recognition of our common relatedness as human persons is a key component in the effort to prevent senseless violence. I tried to make the point that technology, while enhancing life in many ways, risks removing us from face-to-face, genuine encounters with others, and this has significant consequences. Some have commented on the article with queries about the explosive growth of social media - Facebook, Twitter, etc.- and wondered about the impact on our culture of these artificial means of being connected.  On the surface, these communication options provide an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. But do they really?  Do those who indulge in the electronic age make and keep fewer actual friends, and miss the joy of human relationships, erroneously thinking that they find happiness within the electronic world? 

The Research is Building—Social cCmparison, Brain Biology, and Relational Psychology

The research that is being published recently suggests the answer to these questions is “yes.”  A University of Michigan study concluded that Facebook use predicts negative shifts regarding how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives over time. The more people used Facebook at one point in time, the worse they felt the next point in time.  The more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.  The authors were careful to consider whether other factors (the size of people's Facebook networks, their perceived supportiveness, motivation for using Facebook, gender, loneliness, self-esteem, or depression) might have accounted for the results.  They did not.

Some commentators argue that the reason for this is the performance-based nature of social networks. Profiles often portray an idealized, highly-considered version of one’s true self, which can engender feelings of inadequacy amongst those looking on. The glitter of life’s highlights and milestones might seem unreachable to the “friends” following along, many of which then begin to feel as if they’re missing out or being left behind.  In other words, it’s like comparing the Top Ten plays of the Day with the entirety of a single ballgame, complete with its many dull moments and much down time.  So part of the problem may indeed be the impact of negative social comparisons, the age-old “grass is greener” phenomena.  Other research, however, suggests that consistent use of these devices is actually impacting our brain function.

Every time your phone, tablet or computer pings with a new text, tweet or email, it triggers a sense of expectation, and the reward centers in our brain are stimulated similar to what occurs with certain drugs.  Eventually, a brain adapted to these “fixes” begins to rewire itself, diminishing the structures needed for concentration, empathy and impulse control, while growing structures receptive to rapid processing and instant gratification. Much like a substance addiction, the eventual results are psychological symptoms ranging from depression to (at the extreme) psychosis.  Even those most in the thick of this “revolution” are showing caution. Companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook are now teaching their own employees meditation, cautioning them on the dangers of constant texting, tweeting and surfing.

In addition to the emotional and biological consequences, we must consider clearly the impact on relationships and how this affects us psychologically.  It is important to recognize that the issues are not really new, just more intense.  The fundamental shift might be said to have occurred over 60 years ago, with the introduction of the television into the family home.  It was at this point that the heretofore standard style of interacting, sitting around a room or table facing each other (even if a radio were providing some entertainment), shifted to sitting side by side, looking out and away from ones’ intimates.  We all know that the quality of the media, the length of programming, and its portability, has escalated to the point now where a person literally has 24-7 access to the entertainment of his choice, from nearly anywhere. Consequently, there is a real risk that a person develops increasingly pseudo-relationships acquired through a myriad of devices; at a minimum one experiences distracted interactions with the person in their presence rather than building sound relationships based on genuine human interaction.

Some insist still that the advantages of social media are worth it: the ability to stay “connected” with many who would otherwise fall off one’s radar screen, and the ability to track down long lost friends from yesteryear.  Both are laudable enterprises for sure.  But I would contend that the risks are real, and they are here.  And that the costs are great and getting greater. 

The person using social media must be vigilant and proactive with respect to fostering real relationships that happen not instantaneously (no, don’t send me a picture and text about the fabulous dinner you are having with your in-laws…talk to them), but instead occur in the natural rhythms of life (yes, do call me the next day, and let’s have coffee and talk about your evening). 

The relationship needs of the human person are fundamental and universal, and psychological research has long shown that there are no substitutes (e.g., the feed and generic care of orphaned babies was not sufficient for them to thrive, they needed also affection, attachment, and emotional nurture).  This need does not disappear as adults.  I understand that there can be something of a “numbers game” with respect to how many “likes” or “friends” one has on a social media platform, but when it comes to relationships, quality really does trump quantity.  The best therapeutic advice we have to reach the quality needed for the “care and feeding” of a friendship, a marriage, or any family relationship, involves face-to-face time, active listening, and a real presence, sacrificial and giving, for the sake of the other.