Gaining the world – losing souls
Connectivity erodes true connection and empathy
IN 2002, the Pew Research Centre used the term “digital disconnect” to describe the gap between internet-savvy students and the school system that had not yet recognised the educational value of the internet. Another form of a digital disconnect may be psychological.
The digital psychological disconnect – that of diminished emotional awareness and connections – can emerge when a society increasingly interacts more with devices than directly with people. Some of the routes may be as follows:
● A digital community allows for a blunt and truncated expression of thoughts (for example, text messages) and emotions (for example, emojis).
● Its anonymity emboldens people to express harsh opinions about others or their endeavours.
● It allows for instant cyberspace-available judgements about others that are widespread and difficult to delete.
● A decrease in the intimate and private expression of emotions regarding oneself and others.
If digital communication becomes the predominant way of interacting with others, we may risk losing the ability to “read” subtle facial expressions in communication, recognise psychological boundaries, and understand – through seeing and experiencing – how our communications affect others.
More profoundly, if digital communication becomes the main mode of relating, it may render face-to-face interpersonal interactions alien and uncomfortable, and lead to these being avoided.
Historically, we can readily observe how technological innovations have affected and shaped our social interactions. For example, it can be argued that television strongly influenced our ideas of family (often in an idealised form), became the “babysitter”, and in many ways changed family dynamics – for example, many families were more likely to watch a TV family interacting in a direct and disclosing manner than to engage in such communication with members of their family.
While the digital age imbues our life with instantaneous and wide-ranging connectivity, it also creates pseudo-connectivity, where “friends” may number in the “thousands”, yet there may not be a single living, breathing person with whom there is a true emotional connection.
Human psychology is “hardwired” towards a desire to fit in with others. Belonging remains critical to a sense of one’s well-being. Psychologically, that sense of “I don’t fit in” can be devastating.
When one feels disconnected it may lead to feeling “less than” others. It may engender a sense of alienation, lack of validation, and feeling judged and rejected. Or it can result in rage – think of the violence committed by the alienated, isolated individual. Or, it may contribute to being risk-aversive, and result in avoiding others for fear of rejection or discomfort. Interestingly, disconnection was observed even before the digital age.
In the 1950s, theologian Paul Tillich noted this paradox: as Americans experienced burgeoning prosperity, there was also a growing sense of detachment and questioning. Tillich labelled this “non-being”, or psychological emptiness experienced as a sense of being cut off from others, from the creative forces around oneself, and of the connectivity to others. While Tillich identified the postWorld War II period as the “age of anxiety”, in the 21st century there may be an even more profound disconnection.
Yet it must be recognised that the digital revolution has had a positive impact for many in their ability to form interpersonal relationships. For example, the increasing popularity of computer dating sites has led to numerous matches and longterm intimate relationships and marriages.
Also, people seeking others with similar beliefs or hobbies have formed close bonds through their internet connections.
An isolated or home-bound person who may not have had the means to meet someone with similar interests can now reach out and find like-minded people through chat rooms.
Clearly, any activity taken to the extreme or used exclusively runs the risk of limiting a person’s potential to develop other channels and opportunities for emotional connectedness.
The critical issue to consider is whether the next wave of technological advances will render physical human connectivity irrelevant. Can all our needs be met virtually?
Does the digital world we now inhabit run the risk of creating a generation of emotionally avoidant, detached, and blunted people? Or perhaps overly self-focused individuals who lack empathy for others – that is, a society, composed at best of misfits and at worst of psychopaths?
Some people may dismiss these concerns, attributing them to technophobic fearmongers. But that misses the point of the questioning – which is to be mindful of what we lose when we unthinkingly embrace technology.
Positive emotional and physical connections to people lead to empathy, which is a profound dimension of the human experience.
It is what promotes kindness, concern, and altruism. It feeds the human spirit and it is something we don’t want to lose. ● Dr Shoba Sreenivasan and Dr Linda E Weinberger are the authors of Psychological Nutrition. Learn more at www.psychologicalnutrition.com
The virtual world could blunt us as humans.