The Faustian Bargain
I’ve written a bunch of articles. Over the years a theme has emerged reflecting my conflicted relationship with technology and social media. On the one hand, they’re a dynamic duo with the power to create community and dispense information like never before. The problem is that our nervous system is still primitive. The rate of change over the last twenty years is incalculable on the human timeline. We’re simply not wired for the speed of life in which we live. We’re wired for real human connection – which requires pacing, patience, and perseverance.
A growing body of research suggests technology is hijacking our attention and compromising our ability to connect. It’s not uncommon for someone to text, tweet and chat the day away, while updating their blog and commenting on a dozen others. This is on top a full week of work and a thousand other daily tasks. There just aren’t that many hours in a day. Something has to give.
It’s normal to feel lonely and restless, at times. That’s life. Additionally, there’s a difference between being alone and the experience of aloneness. It’s the latter I’m referring to. Despite the myriad ways of being connected, we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. In the past, it was the elder population who reported feeling the most alone. But for the first time, teens around the world are reporting an increase in depression, anxiety and feelings of social isolation. This increase occurred in tandem with the advent cell phones and social media.
Hooked on Hits
Because we are innately attracted to the bright and shiny, devices have become our preferred drug of choice. In the past, technological advancements were in service to making our lives easier. But the modern age has simply made our lives busier. Inundated with information, we live in a constant state of overwhelm. As a result, we’ve grown accustomed to showing up less for each other. And why not when swiping, clicking and posting takes little effort while providing a felt-sense of connection?
Also, there is no denying the warm fuzzies are real. It’s called dopamine. Social media gives you a hit when someone “likes” you, which stimulates the reward systems of the brain providing a temporary state of euphoria. But it can never match the value of interpersonal togetherness and the more we rely on external sources to stimulate our “feel-good” chemicals, the more we lose the natural ability to create these mood-boosting neurotransmitters within. That’s how the cycle of addiction begins. It doesn’t take long before we need more and more to feel normal.
Which leads me to wonder if we’ve lost sight of the healing power of real-time relationship. Where is the incentive to meet in-person when we can get a semblance of our needs met without leaving the comfort of our homes? The pandemic amplified this dilemma when meeting others meant a risk of contagion. During that critical time, the internet was a lifeline. But in the aftermath of the chaos, we have forgotten that life isn’t lived on-line.
Social Media is Off the Rails
Tech is not going away and that’s a good thing. The medium is life-changing. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re culturally sanctioning addiction. I’ve never owned a cell phone nor I do want to, yet society is making it hard to function without one. The number of things I cannot do are currently small but stacking up. The other day I was at a restaurant that didn’t provide paper menus. When I told the waiter I didn’t have a phone, it didn’t go unnoticed that he took a gentle, cleansing breath before telling me the day’s specials. I get it. My stance is exacerbating to 99% of the population.
I’m a child of the 70’s, which makes me a Gen X-er. We’re the bridge generation. We’ve embraced technology, but it will always be our second language. I remember waiting endless for AOL to dial up and being glad for it. It’s mind-blowing how quickly it all changed. We truly live in a different world.
What bothers me is that all societies develop agreed upon rules for the general health of the people. But in the name of progress, we failed to implemented guidelines on social media. Instead, we’ve allowed technology to infiltrate our lives without guardrails and now it’s too late. Facebook, which owns Instagram, is lightyears ahead of us and has been carefully positioning itself to sway the minds of the world. They pour millions of dollars into developing algorithms to manipulate the public and know exactly how to keep us hooked.
The New Normal
When I was kid, we piled around the TV after dinner armed with bowls of ice-cream to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In my tween years, each night offered us a plethora of sitcoms, variety and game shows to watch together. It took me becoming an opinionated teenager for my mom to eventually “gift” me a TV for my room. Even then, I still gathered to watch our favorite programs in her bedroom.
Why am I sharing this quaint history? Because the American family is no longer spending time together. According to new research, we devote a measly thirty-seven minutes of quality time together per day. Instead of hanging out, members are hunkering down solo with their device of choice. And don’t get me started on the dangers of unsupervised exposure to the internet for children. It borders on criminal.
Getting Back on Track
There are days I feel like I’m the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. And there are moments I question whether holding my position is worth it. Sometimes it seems my friends are drifting away. Or, rather, they’re forgetting I exist without the virtual reminder. It regularly takes a week to get a response to email; whereas a text would get an instant reply. Also, it hasn’t gone unnoticed, that talking on the phone has become a phobia to otherwise well-adjusted, ridiculously wonderful, human beings.
Then something comes along, reminding me why I have chosen to live a (somewhat) tech-free life. The Social Dilemma and Stolen Focus are two examples. I admittedly have a bias that prefers mindful use of technology and social media. The documentary and book go beyond that. They speak to what is happening to the fabric of our society.
Ultimately, the job of living a balanced, healthy, and connected life falls on the individual. Guidelines give direction, but we have to do the work. Just as I know the importance of diet and exercise, I understand enough about the neurobiology of the human brain and the social needs of the human heart to put self-imposed limits on my exposure to the internet.
Know that we come by our dependency honestly. The brain is ruled by conservation. The more energy we conserve, the less taxing it is on the system. This efficiency is at the heart of evolution and is the basis of habit formation. In other words, it’s our nature to seek the easy way. Unfortunately, this natural mechanism coupled with the convenience of modern life has made us interpersonally lazy.
Stay Connected to the Kids
I said I wouldn’t get started, but here I go anyway. Whether or not you consider yourself social media savvy, the documentary Childhood 2.0 is must-see viewing for all parents. For the first time in history, social anxiety and suicide have become the greatest threats to school-aged children. Parents who grew up fearing “stranger danger” are missing the real threat to our kids: spending more time online and less time engaging in real life, free play, and autonomy.
We’re in the midst of the greatest and most profound social experiment of our times. Our nervous system hasn’t changed for a millennium. Yet, in the equivalent of a nanosecond, our lives have been irreversibly changed by tech and social media. The best practice is to stay present and proactive.