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An American Life...Unplugged

     When I moved to South East Asia in 2009, I used my smart phone as a paperweight. All that power in a little black box rendered useless without a cellular connection. Funny that I felt more connected to my neighbors while unplugged.

     In America, everybody seems to have or wants to have a smart phone. But in all our technological glory, many psychologists don’t see the social benefits to instant connectivity. We are often guilty of texting to avoid face-to-face contact. We broaden friendships, but with thinner loyalties. We accomplish infinitely more communication, producing more work for ourselves, and decreasing our quality ties to family and friends.

Together, but alone

     Why, in an age of instant global communication, are we more disconnected than ever as a culture?  A friend of mine texts, “I’m so glad you’re in my life!” yet for months we struggle to coordinate our schedules for dinner.  A family sits together silently at a restaurant with heads down, each engaged with an electronic device. A chartered bus loaded with school children on a field trip trucks down the highway quietly.  The kids watch a movie on drop-down screens, while chaperones catch up on emails.

     We entertain ourselves, get information, shop, or chat with preferred friends, all from a mobile device. We are so mobile that I feel guilty asking someone to stop moving and meet for a cup of tea.  Jim Daly of Focus on the Family discusses this phenomenon as an acute problem for teenagers:

     “For many tweens and teens, sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram bring the stresses of school and peer pressure right to their smartphones and home computers,” he argues. “The virtual world makes it easy for them to compare themselves with their peers, leading some to wrestle with body image issues and even eating disorders.”

     And the Christian community isn’t the only one concerned.  In his article, “Texting as Social Regress,” Reid Goldsborough studies a 2012 book written by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle that expresses concern over a loss of person-to-person conversation skills due to the instant messaging culture. He explains Turkle’s opinion that: “What was meant to facilitate communication has instead pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other.” By texting, we lose the body language, tone, context, and other fine nuances of real human communication. Reid sums up Turkle’s argument that, “we should be the master over our technology rather than becoming its slave.”

     The technology revolution necessitates self-control, something we human beings often lack. Since returning to the concrete jungle in 2012, I have resisted renewing smart phone service for two reasons: One, I cannot rationalize it financially. I have a home computer with Internet access, and cannot justify a professional need for convenience computing.  Secondly, I’m a quiet person and don’t juggle multiple conversations easily. A Facebook connection with many acquaintances isn’t as warm as one-on-one face time with a friend. 

     Since returning to America, I sense a vague disconnectedness in my community.  Is it my resistance to smart phone technology?  Am I out of the circle? Or, is our culture changing its fundamental definitions of friendship and connectivity?

Navigating friendship in a digital culture

     As a friend and I discussed our passé “flip” phones, she confessed jokingly, “Soon we are converting to smart phones because I’m losing credibility with my kids.” I completely understand that pressure. Even some grass-skirted rainforest natives carry cell phones along with their bows and arrows.  I’ve actually seen this. But in order to maintain depth of relationship with family and friends, I agree with Daly, Goldsborough, and many others that technology actually hinders social interaction.  If only there were an app for self-control.

  • While driving, put your phone where you cannot reach it
  • Teach kids that texting during a face-to-face conversation is rude
  • Make the dinner table a phone-free zone
  • Establish specific rules for teen use of social media
  • Prioritize “in person” events and availability to family and neighbors
  • Teach social skills to children and limit computer time
  • Think before texting to determine whether what you want to communicate would be better understood in person or by telephone

     The cumulative minutes that we spend each day focused on person-to-person conversation, engaged with family and friends, build stronger human ties than emoticons.  Our families need our face time. There’s no app for that. 

Copyright © 2008-2015 Julie Strohkorb

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