When was the last time you spent time by yourself? What was it like? Did you dread it? Did you try to avoid it? Or did you revel in it, enjoy every minute of it, pine for more of it?
We live in a society where being alone is seen as a problem. Something to be avoided. Something to be fixed. We live in a culture where we are bombarded with images, sounds, sights, and messages that fight for our attention. And more than ever before, we are plugged-in during every waking hour of our lives.
Smart phones with social media sites tweeting us, pinging us, and notifying us of this, that, and the other tell us that we are not alone. That we are powerful, wanted, engaged, and known. Yet in many ways we are more
disconnected and lonelier than ever before.
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who has studied the role of technology and social media extensively argues that technology is taking us places we don’t want to go and that it is changing us—and not for the better. In her 2012 TED Talk, Turkle discusses the ways we use technology to disconnect from one another, our fears of vulnerability, and our resistance to true connection.
Dr. Turkle challenges us all to take an honest look at our use of technology and invites us to turn back to real connection. As I consider this invitation, I can’t help but think of the reasons disconnection shows up in our lives.
Why are we disconnected?
The Illusion of Connection
As mentioned above, we live in a world that grabs for our attention. It’s easier than ever to never be bored, to always have something vying for our attention. And yet the endless diet of images, messages, and entertainment serves to blunt our emotional lives. We become observers in our own lives, experiencing things only as an outsider looking in. This process disconnects us from others, but more importantly it disconnects us from ourselves.
This is ironic, because we may feel more connected than ever. We know what’s going on with people we haven’t talked to in years. We know the latest gossip from Hollywood, and yet we don’t know what’s going on with our loved one in the same room. And as long as we are plugged into our devices, we are less likely to engage in the work of having a real conversation. Social media then, gives us the illusion of connection without the effort required in real-life relationships.
Fear of Vulnerability
Relationships are challenging. Relationships require significant and consistent effort and often leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Because this prospect is risky and fearful, many of us opt out of real relationships and instead become observers to the lives of others as presented on social media.
We make plenty of assumptions about what we see on social media. “They live such an exciting life.” “They always look beautiful.” “I wish I had her life.” We fall for the touched up photos, the perfectly phrased messages, and see ourselves more negatively as a result. We don’t challenge our assumptions or the reality of the images in our feed. A constant diet of social media erodes self-esteem as we compare ourselves to the images presented to us. This process zaps any motivation for real connection. Why try? No one will like us anyway.
Lack of Skills
As we are increasingly tethered to technology, we lose—or fail to develop—basic communication skills. We don’t know how to carry on a conversation in real time. The nonverbal cues of conversation (which account for up to 80% of communication) are lacking, and face to face interactions make us anxious. We worry that we won’t know what to say or that we will be misunderstood. It feels so much easier to hide behind our phones.
Returning to Connection
Most of us are desperate for real relationships, but how do we return to connection? Here’s a list of steps that can help us challenge our fear of connection, become an active participant in our lives, and cultivate meaningful relationships.
- Decrease social media time. How much time do you spend on social media every day? Track your use over a week. You’ll probably be shocked by how much time you spend perusing other people’s lives. Set some limits based on your use. If you are spending 3 hours a day on social media, start by cutting it down to 1 hour, gradually decreasing the time you spend on social media each day.
- Limit social media to specific periods during the day. Many of us turn to social media during any free minute. How many of you check your feeds while waiting at a stoplight? Try designating specific times for social media and resisting the urge to turn to technology in other times. Maybe you set aside 20-minutes at the end of every day as social media time.
- Make social media quality time. Don’t follow or friend those who don’t share your values. Avoid social media that feeds your need to compare. Find social media that uplifts you, encourages you, and nurtures your best self.
- Establish boundaries related to technology: no phones at the table, no phones after 9:00 pm, no phones in bedrooms. Phones put away during classes, conversations, and when in the car (and NEVER when driving). Basic rules about the do’s and don’ts of technology make it easier to take a balanced approach.
- Start at least one genuine conversation each day. Talk to your spouse, talk to your kids, talk to your dog (they may be the best listeners). Just talk to someone.
- Interact with others. Say hello when you pass someone in the hall. Make eye contact. Ask a genuine question. Listen to the answer.
- Utilize active listening skills. Seek understanding. Empathize. Give the person your full attention.
- Don’t be afraid to mess up. Real interactions can be messy. We stumble on our words, we can’t think of the perfect response, we worry what the other person is thinking of us, but you know what? It’s okay. You don’t need to be perfect, and what you’ll come to discover is that true connection only happens in vulnerability. Vulnerability is where the magic happens.
- Go on a social media fast. Try taking a day or a week or a month away from social media. What do you first notice? Is it difficult? Are you anxious? Are you suffering from FOMO? What do you notice after a few days? You’ll likely discover that you have more time for things that are personally meaningful. You may be more content. You may decide you could care less what is happening to the Kardashians.
- Take time to quiet yourself. This recommendation may be the most important. When we are constantly connected to technology, we fail to connect with ourselves. We lose sight of our values, our meaning, our hopes and dreams. By quieting ourselves and taking time alone to reflect we come to discover who we are and what’s most important to us. Activities that cultivate self-connection include meditation, journaling, yoga, unplugging from devices, and solitude of any kind.
We often turn to technology so we don’t have to be alone. Ironically, technology often leaves us feeling more isolated and lonely than ever. And we tend to hide behind social media, keeping our true selves hidden not only from others but from ourselves. But meaningful connection happens in real time with real people, and is so worth the effort. Give these steps a try and see where it takes you.