You’re hanging out with your best friend when they tell you they’re moving across the country. Clearly, you’re devastated because you will no longer be able to see them whenever you want. Though your daily interactions will not be face to face, at least you can instantly connect with them through Facetime, Snapchat, Instagram, and texting. In a way, it’s like they never left. Right?
The technology we have today is amazing. In one second, in the palm of your hand, you can connect with friends and family no matter where they are. We can even connect with people we’d never meet otherwise through dating and social media apps. At their heart, these devices are about connection – and this is a good thing.
Humans are all about connections. But, our screens turn harmful when we allow them to take the place of real interactions. When the information we are fed through them becomes our only reality, we can feel lost. It’s important to stay in touch with that friend who moved, and it’s less important to scroll through an endless Facebook feed while you’re sitting there talking to them.
What Makes Us Happy?
While there is no one true answer for that question, experts agree that social connections are an important component to our overall happiness. In a 75 year study, Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, found that those who were more connected to family, friends, and community were mentally happier, psychologically healthier, and living longer.
More importantly, these connections fend off feelings of loneliness. In his TED Talk, Waldinger explained, “The experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic….And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.”
The more we interact with friends and family, the deeper our bonds become with each other, and the happier we will be.
When you use an app like FaceTime to connect with your friend who moved, it is almost identical to the interaction you would experience face to face. You chat about what’s happening in your lives, share stories, and laugh together. FaceTime allows you to see facial reactions, gauge tone of voice, and fully understand context. In this sense, our screens are helping us stay connected.
So, how can we still feel lonely when we have the ability to connect to each other instantly?
Unfortunately, much of what we use our phones for is not creating intimate connections. Our time with our screens is mostly spent consuming information. And because of the technology’s addictive qualities, you may end up endlessly scrolling through this information. What once was free time to connect with friends is now spent staring at our screens.
Psychologist, Adam Alter found that we have roughly three hours a day that aren’t dedicated to work, family, eating, bathing – survival activities. What is left is our personal time (white space). He said, “This space is incredibly important to us. That’s the space where we do things that make us individuals. That’s where hobbies happen, where we have close relationships, where we really think about our lives, where we get creative…when people look back on their lives and wonder what their lives have been like at the end of their lives, you look at the last things they say – they are talking about those moments that happen in that white personal space.”
When this personal space is taken up by screen time, we lose that sense of connection. Instead of calling that friend who moved away, you continuously scan through your Facebook page, barely registering anything you’re reading. Suddenly, those three hours of personal space you have fly by, and you can’t even remember what you did. Are you happy after endlessly scrolling? Probably not.
Stepping away from our screens can be difficult. Are you ever talking to a friend while they scroll through their phone? It gives a clear picture that a screen is more important then what is happening in front of them. Author Sherry Turkle explains how those she interviewed for her research brag about their ability to make eye contact while texting.
These technologies act like a drug and it can be hard to turn them off. And while technology isn’t going anywhere, neither is our need for human connection.
If we are going to spend so much of our personal time on our phones, we should spend it on those apps that truly connect us. True, it’s all about balance. But we need to attempt to spend some of that personal time connecting with friends, enjoying nature, and becoming part of the community.
Can Technology Ever Do Both?
Is there a way in which technology can use our need for human connection? Some in the tech industry believe that it can. Many realize the dangers of too much screen time and the addictiveness of our devices.
The Director of Google’s Creative Lab, Tea Uglow asks us toimagine a world where technology isn’t coming from a screen. A world where technology can be built into physical things that integrate the internet into our world.
Uglow says, “Humans like natural solutions. Humans love information. Humans need simple tools. These principles should underpin how we design for the future, not just for the internet.” He believes that we aren’t addicted to our devices but we’re simply addicted to the information that flows through them. Which means designing how we receive information can go beyond the screen itself into something we can touch, see, and feel: something we can interact with.
The world in front of your is far richer than the one in your screen. Listening to a friend tell you a story is more enticing than simply reading about it on Facebook.
When we scroll endlessly, we enter a void that can be hard to escape. It often provides us with a sense of loneliness. Yes, it’s all about finding a balance. But it’s more than that. Technology does have the ability to connect us in ways we never imagined possible but it needs to be designed with human needs in mind.