Recently we’ve noticed that a flurry of articles, posts, and pieces have been written about the implications that modern-day technology and social media have on relationships. Perhaps these pieces were written in light of Facebook’s 10th birthday, or maybe it’s because there’s been a rise in research about the link between technology and real life. Either way, it’s caused us to take interest in a book written by Sherry Turkle in 2011 called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. We were drawn in by praise for the book, specifically by this quote from the reviewers at the Financial Times:
In this beautifully written, provocative and worrying book, Turkle, a professor at MIT, a clinical psychologist and, perhaps, the world’s leading expert on the social and psychological effects of technology, argues that internet use has as much power to isolate and destroy relationships as it has to bring us together.
Of course, we know that there is so much beauty and healthy connectedness in the world because of the internet. After all, you wouldn’t even be reading this piece if you didn’t have access to the worldwide web! But since various forms of social media have now been around long enough for experts to assess the benefits and pitfalls of using them, we are increasingly aware of the ways in which we need to step away from the computer (or smart phone, or tablet) in order to truly live meaningful lives.
Turkle’s book gives us a few ideas of how to do this:
Today’s society advocates constant connectedness and in many ways, that’s a great thing. We can stay in touch with family and friends who live far away, work remotely while on business trips, make connections with people we might never have known otherwise, and explore the world right from our computer screen or cell phones. Yet, Alone Together makes the argument that we need to create space for silence by setting technology aside, even if just for a little while. Turkle points out that seeking solitude is especially important for teenagers as they grow into adulthood:
Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn empathetic skills, to think about their values and identity, and to manage and express feelings. They need time to discover themselves, time to think.
Adults need time to discover themselves and think, too. Stillness gives us time to reflect, journal, pause, and express gratitude. Maybe we don’t need to be silent to find stillness – maybe we just need to unplug for a bit in order to do so.
“People are lonely. The network is seductive,” Turkle acknowledges. “But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.”
Unplug & Connect Offline.
Turkle asserts that it’s important to take a break from our devices when in the presence of loved ones. While it’s not always possible to turn off our phones, it is possible (and important) to give the people we’re with our undivided attention. Turkle writes that though we are good at setting aside time to spend together, we’re not actually getting the benefit of true connectedness because we’re more focused on our phones than we are on each other:
We have found ways of spending more time with friends and family in which we hardly give them any attention at all.
Distracted by technology, we end up isolating the people we’re with by prioritizing the content and updates we receive over what our friends and family are saying to us in the present moment. Making time to spend together in person is important, and it’s certainly the first step in maintaining healthy relationships. The next step is to turn away from our devices and focus on the people we’re actually with.
At various points throughout Alone Together, Turkle highlights the importance of having serious conversations face-to-face instead of through a device. She says that “online communication…offers us an opportunity to ignore other people’s feelings.” When we’re distracted by several open browsers or if we’re not picking up on certain cues (which can be hard to do if you can’t hear a person’s tone or view their body language), we can easily overlook a person’s attempt at connecting with us emotionally. Since it’s become so easy to talk through typing instead of in person, we’re missing opportunities to really connect and strengthen relationships because, after all, in difficult times of need it feels better to have a literal shoulder to lean on.
Turkle does not say that texting and e-mailing are solely responsible for breakdowns in communication. She acknowledges the important things about those forms of communication, but she also makes a good point:
Texts…can certainly be emotional, insightful, and sexy. They can lift us up. They can make us feel understood, desired, and supported. But they are not a place to deeply understand a problem or to explain a complicated situation.
The benefits of technology are as numerous as the stars, but let’s take a minute to assess how deeply connected we are to our mobile devices and internet presences. How is this behavior affecting our relationships? It could be time to shift our focus away from technology, giving us the space to seek out solitude, real-world connections, and face-to-face conversations, allowing us to live fuller, richer lives.
Do you feel like technology has hindered the relationships around you? How can you practice being a device-free friend this week?