Between smartphones, tablets, laptops, and an abundance of streaming services and music subscriptions, it can be difficult to unplug. But how does this constant stream of information and news cycles feeding us endless stimulation affect our attention spans and ability to connect to other people in real interactions?
Many entrepreneurs and tech creators who had a hand in developing social media and technology have gone lengths to cut down on the very technologies they helped create.
Steve Jobs was considered an outlier in many respects, including in how he chose to raise his children without access to iPhones or iPads — the very products that he helped create.
But Jobs wasn’t the only one who chose to put limits on technology. Silicon Valley has seen a surge in creators taking a step back from the products their industry has helped create. Justin Rosenstein, a programmer who has worked with Google and Facebook, where he was technical head of creating the like button describes the feature as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” and even goes as far as to call some social media the equivalent to drugs. He has taken radical steps to limit his exposure to social media and the internet by using parental controls to block SnapChat, Reddit, and even prevent himself from downloading any apps on his phone.
The reason that a number of tech creators have taken a step back from technology is that the distraction that it causes. It’s difficult to be productive in a world where the products people own are designed to be addictive, and cognitive neuroscientists suggest that technology promotes superficial reading, a term used to describe how brains have become accustomed to skimming information online and reading very short content such as tweets. And experts are concerned that this may effect long-form reading and processing ability.
Disconnection From Real People and Real Things
Moreover, technology has progressed to the point that it even distracts people from one another. In a 2012 study conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, researchers found that habitual internet users had similar brain connections to alcoholics and substance addicts, which in turn, can create day-to-day communication difficulties in relationships. Which often manifests through disregard and a lack of empathy. Online users often become desensitized to violence and disregarding others feelings when everything takes place online, where everything feels far away and impersonal.
The term “ghosting” has become a well-known word recently, though, it is far from a new phenomenon. The act of cutting off communication, or “ghosting”, is significantly easier in today’s world as all someone has to do is hit the “block user” button on their phone and another person is cut off from their life.
The phenomenon becomes even more disturbing once you consider that the act of ghosting is mostly associated with dating. Technology has essentially made online dating the equivalent to services like Netflix and Amazon where users swipe through dating apps like catalogs. Only with dating apps, users are looking through other people and are often only presented a few pictures and maybe a few lines of a description before making a choice. And with so many other users and choices, it’s easy to forget there’s another person on the other end and people, willingly or unwillingly, often make hurtful and dehumanizing choices that lead to racial bias and discrimination. A 2018 Cornell study found that dating apps are often designed to allow users to narrow a search down to specific features like skin color, height, and even as minor as eye color. Features like this disregard the human and emotional aspect of dating, and encourages users to do the same by giving them the option to discriminate by making it easy and with little consequence to themselves.
Dating apps like Tinder and OkCupid make it easy to reject potential dates. That isn’t to say rejection shouldn’t happen. People feel the way they do and that should be respected. However, rejecting a potential suitor at a bar is much different than rejecting a user online. In person, you get to have a real conversation and see how a potential suitor may conduct themselves, something you don’t get a good feel for through messaging. And while at the bar, someone may face a few rejections, and that’s hard. A 2011 study even shows that social rejection stimulates the same parts of the brain that processes physical pain. But now imagine that rejection amplified by the hundreds of users swiping through matches and ignoring messages., According to data from OkCupid, hundreds of messages are often left unanswered. The impact of this online rejection is very real, and a 2017 study found that this rejection impacts users self-image and self-worth by presenting people as disposable.
Technology doesn’t only affect people’s empathy with dating. Prolonged use of social media can create a personal disconnect among peers. When people have the ability to live through their phones and see friend’s past experiences, it can feel like people are socializing and keeping up with their friends without in-person interaction. And this can lead to individuals neglecting relationships and feeling negative about their own lives when they only see the best parts of their friends’ lives on social media. While in reality, those friends on social media are often misrepresenting their lives and may be struggling in ways they don’t present. All of this together leads to a cycle of anxiety and distress that impacts users emotions. A 2017 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that prolonged use of social media greatly increases the chance of developing an anxiety disorder in emerging adults.
The Benefits of Shutting Off
Detoxing from technology isn’t easy, take it from this 2016 study, where researchers found that people check their phones 2,617 times a day. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your phone completely, just limiting use can show benefits. Limiting use of blue light emitting devices at night can improve sleep quality, improve focus and productivity, and ultimately lead to better communication and relationships.
The End Game, Technological Dystopia?
Considering the above studies, it’s concerning to think about how technology will impact the future if current trends continue and nothing is done to curb the effects. The show Black Mirror often depicts alternate dystopian realities, and a lot of the times the show hits disturbingly close to home. It wouldn’t be far off to say perhaps the show is more reality rather than a fictional anthology series.
If the current trends are any indication, technologies impact on individuals’ empathy and communication skills will launch society into a dystopian future where people are seen as merchandise picked out from online catalogs to accomplish whatever is needed and disposed of after there their use.
Considering the lack of intimacy with online dating, perhaps society moves towards artificially creating humans in labs where their genetics and features are chosen in a Build-a-Bear style store and pieced together for a specific purpose. Need an athlete? Choose higher muscle density. Need a politician? Choose the communication skills starter pack. Need a psychologist? Unfortunate, because empathy packs were rendered obsolete.