That may be hard to imagine. In reality, when you walk down the aisle of a train or bus, unfamiliar eyes are staring down at their screens. One of them may be FaceTiming a loved one from across the country; another may be switching between apps to avoid making conversation. Perhaps this trick can prevent people from feeling vulnerable, but it could also restrain them from making conversation that could develop into a valuable friendship. Technology is a tool our society has to learn how to use responsibly, without letting it detract from our interpersonal relationships with others.
On one hand, technology has enabled me to have some of my most interesting interactions with people. A few years ago, I became pen pals over Skype with a young girl from India to help her learn English and help my own Hindi. Through KidSpirit, I have been able to communicate with teenagers all over the world, allowing me to understand other people’s perspectives on themes that resonate globally. This experience creates bonds between individuals of our generation from diverse backgrounds and is crucial for moving society forward. Technology has helped form stronger communities of people from the same cultural background, as participants rally behind their personal rights collectively through social media. In my own town, the “Indian Caucus of Secaucus” has a Facebook page, through which the town’s Indians plan celebratory events for Holi and Diwali and meet each other at these festivities. The ties amongst different communities have grown limitlessly stronger with the help of our devices.
Although modern technology has provided endless connections globally, it also has its downsides. Individuals vulnerable to the growing problem of phone addiction can claim that we still pursue lives beyond our ever-expanding iPhones, but my generation often evaluates whether these experiences are “worthy” of sharing. Social media portrays the moments of our lives that are the most perfect, and some people have grown to constantly search for these rare moments to capture. We try so hard to find aesthetic spontaneity that we take away from the genuine pleasure in any experience.
This mindset isolates us from enjoying real experiences and forming genuine relationships. When we “see” other people with tons of friends, on vacation, and with their most flattering clothes on, we feel their lives are better than our own. Resultantly, we strive to come off in the same way, and feel good about ourselves after getting public approval through our number of likes. We lose touch with finding what is valuable to us. Modern technology consumes our days, occupying any free time available, and thereby preventing us from truly discovering what we value in life.
Too much exposure to this lifestyle paradoxically induces social isolation. This phenomenon is called “virtual distance,” and it prevents us from seeking deeper bonds with others. Virtual distance, as Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski puts it, is “a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow little by little unconsciously when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens on smart devices.” Her studies show that high amounts of virtual distance decrease trust and cooperative and helping behaviors by 80%—making us lose the ability to develop social skills and appreciate each other by ourselves. While the capability to communicate so effortlessly through the tap of a finger is commendable, electronically dependent relationships are unable to convey the same emotion and empathy as physical ones. Because of this, relationships are disrupted, and things that used to be treasured gestures of appreciation are downgraded to dangerous one-line “i love u” text messages. The beautiful mystery associated with romance is not nearly as prevalent as it used to be. Within five minutes of scrolling on social media, you can uncover a love interest’s passions and personal life, taking away from the opportunity of getting to know someone slowly over multiple dates.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem we can solve by simply putting our phones away during dinner. Studies have shown that our attention span decreases in proportion to the amount of time spent browsing the internet. Our minds, exposed to tons of news and gossip and notifications every day, are subconsciously preoccupied regardless of whether we are on our devices at a particular moment. There is no doubt that quality time at family dinners, high school cafeterias, and social gatherings is negatively influenced by phone addictions. Today, everyone’s priority at an event such as a school dance is to document their “fun” on social media through Snapchat stories and Instagram posts instead of sincerely spending time with others.
In the absence of devices, families and friends would learn to converse and interact comfortably, creating stronger long-term bonds. People would listen to and attempt to understand the opinions of those from different backgrounds, instead of judging everyone based on virtually defined stereotypes. Perhaps in that world, political upheavals like the 2017 election would not result in even more divisions in our nation, but rather force us to solve deep-rooted issues collectively by actively listening to other perspectives.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, social media was flooded with “thoughts and prayers.” Those who posted about the calamity seemed more conscientious and thoughtful to me, but in reality, were the posters simply wishing or were they taking action? While our devices help spread awareness, they take the place of actual discussions. Therefore, the device becomes an escape from hearing what other people have to say, and that by itself is strengthening, not healing, our divisions. Technology is isolating us from our problems, our peers, and ourselves.
While there are many pros and cons to technology’s impact on relationships, we have to find a happy medium that allows us to keep the human element intact in our interactions with people while reaping the benefits of new advances. If we continue to let technology abate the effort we put into staying in touch with our peers and surroundings, it will become increasingly more difficult to redeem the interpersonal skills that we need in order to truly listen to our peers. In the United States, we claim to stand together, “one nation . . . indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but at this rate, we’re growing farther apart. As the negative consequences of modern technology overwhelm the positives, face-to-face interactions between people with different opinions will become even more limited and cultural ties will become weaker. It’s crucial that we do not lose ourselves while relishing the benefits our modern technological frontier has to offer.
Vanita Sharma is a senior at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey. She loves to make conversation with random people, and she enjoys playing tennis, taking pictures, and learning without structured curriculums!
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