The Effects Of Technology On Relationships

Photo: Steve Keys

Email, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Delicious, Digg, LinkedIn, blogs (of course), and scores of others—all part of the new and wonderful ways we can now connect with one another electronically, each with its own culture and unique set of rules.  In one sense, the planet has never been more interconnected.  And yet, this interconnectedness, while wonderful, hasn’t come without cost.

ISOLATION

Much has been written about the dangers of Internet addiction.  From pornography to merely surfing the web, the Internet is clearly the television of the 21st century, an electronic drug that often yanks us away from the physical world.  Like any addiction, the real cost, for those of us who are truly addicted, is to the number and quality of our relationships with others.  We may enjoy online relationships using social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, for example, but the difference between these kinds of interactions and interactions with people in the physical world is clearly vast.  As long as we expect no more from these online relationships than they can give, no good reason exists why we can’t enjoy the power of social media sites to connect us efficiently to people we’d otherwise not touch.  The problem, however, comes when we find ourselves subtly substituting electronic relationships for physical ones or mistaking our electronic relationships for physical ones.  We may feel we’re connecting effectively with others via the Internet, but too much electronic-relating paradoxically engenders a sense of social isolation.

DANGERS

Making our meaning clear electronically presents extra challenges.  For example, we write things like “LOL” and “LMAO” to describe our laughter, but they’re no real substitute for hearing people laugh, which has real power to lift our spirits when we’re feeling low.

I’ve also observed people using electronic media to make confrontation easier and have seen more than one relationship falter as a result.  People are often uncomfortable with face-to-face confrontation, so it’s easy to understand why they’d choose to use the Internet.  Precisely because electronic media transmit emotion so poorly compared to in-person interaction, many view it as the perfect way to send difficult messages:  it blocks us from registering the negative emotional responses such messages engender, which provides us the illusion we’re not really doing harm.  Unfortunately, this also usually means we don’t transmit these messages with as much empathy, and often find ourselves sending a different message than we intended and breeding more confusion than we realize.

As a result, I’ve made it a rule of thumb to limit my email communications as much as possible to factual information only.  If I need to work something out with someone that feels difficult, uncomfortable, or unpleasant, I make myself communicate in person.  In-person interactions, though more difficult, are more likely to result in positive outcomes and provide opportunities for personal growth.  Whenever I hear stories of romantic break-ups, firings, or even arguments going on electronically, I cringe.  We find ourselves tempted to communicate that way because it feels easier—but the outcome is often worse.

ETIQUETTE

For transferring information efficiently, the Internet is excellent.  For transacting emotionally sensitive or satisfying connections, it’s not.  My wife and I joke that we use email messaging when we’re sitting back-to-back in our home office, but we use it to keep a record of our schedule.  When we have a conflict, we turn our chairs around and talk.

Even when we’re all careful to use the Internet only to exchange information, problems can still arise.  People tend to delay answering emails when they don’t have what they consider to be good answers or when they want to avoid whatever responsibility the email demands of them.  But this is like being asked a question in person and rather than responding, “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to think about it,” turning on your heels and walking away in silence.  It’s far easier to ignore an email sender’s request than a request from someone made in person because an email sender’s hope to get a response or frustration in not receiving one remains mostly invisible.  But it’s every bit as rude.

Our “emotional invisibility” on the Internet perhaps also explains so much of the vitriol we see on so many websites.  People clearly have a penchant for saying things in the electronic world they’d never say to people in person because the person to whom they’re saying it isn’t physically present to display their emotional reaction.  It’s as if the part of our nervous system that registers the feelings of others has been paralyzed or removed when we’re communicating electronically, as if we’re drunk and don’t realize or don’t care that our words are hurting others.

Social media websites are wonderful tools but are often abused.  A few common sense rules for the electronic world apply:

  1. Don’t say anything on email you’d feel uncomfortable saying to someone in person.  If it needs saying but feels awkward, do it in person.  Look upon it as practice for handling confrontation maturely.  Consider yourself drunk every time you get online so that you take steps to monitor yourself carefully.  If you find yourself tempted to behave like a boor, step away from your keyboard (you wouldn’t drive drunk, would you?).
  2. Don’t delay your response to messages you’d rather avoid.  If someone has reached out to you, they care about your response.  I’m sometimes guilty of this one myself, but I’m working on it.
  3. Relationships are affected by online communication.  It’s much easier to injure friendships online than in person because of the ease of creating misunderstandings electronically.  Non-verbal communication, after all, (argued by to some to represent up to 40% of our in-person communication) is completely absent.  Be careful how you word every electronic message you send, in whatever context.  Remember that every Internet message you send becomes a permanent part of your brand (whether you’re trying to market something or not).
  4. Balance time on the Internet with time spent with friends and family.  It may seem too obvious to mention, but it feels qualitatively different to go out to dinner with friends than to spend several days engaged in back-and-forth email exchanges.  So much communication and meaning is lost in the latter.  And our effect on one another is much more intense when we meet in person.  When a friend is going through a rough time, nothing substitutes for in-person communication.  A gentle smile or a heartfelt hug has far more power than the cleverest emoticon to lift another person’s spirits.

CONCLUSION

The Internet is an amazing tool.  But even as it’s shrunk the world and brought us closer together, it’s threatened to push us further apart.  Like any useful tool, to make technology serve us well requires the exercise of good judgment.  For whatever reason, the restraints that stop most of us from blurting out in public things we know we shouldn’t seem far weaker when our mode of communication is typing.  Unfortunately, typed messages often wound even more gravely, while electronic messages of remorse paradoxically have little power to heal.  Perhaps we just don’t think such messages have the same power to harm as when we we say them in person.  Perhaps in the heat of the moment without another’s physical presence to hold us back, we just don’t care.  Whatever the reason, it’s clearly far easier for us to be meaner to one another online.  Let’s try not to be.

Next weekThe Diffusion Of Responsibility

14 comments to The Effects Of Technology On Relationships

  • Wendy S. Harpham, MD

    You are talking about the preservation of civilization in modern times. Thank you for this excellent post on an important topic. With hope, Wendy

  • Gene

    After losing a friend as a result of my impulsive reply to her impulsive email, I’ve learned not to reply too quickly to any email which angers or annoys me. I give it time and reply when I’m feeling more in control. I do feel that I communicate my thoughts better in writing than orally. I’m able to consider my replies and rephrase them. In a tense face to face, I’m too likely to become angry and say something I’ll regret.

  • John Schumann, M.D.

    So timely, Alex! Somewhat of an eternal message, but you presaged today’s above the fold headline on the front page of the NY Times (of course I refer to the actual paper copy!):

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html?ref=health

    A really wise post. Thanks.
    John

  • John Schumann, M.D.

    Oh—I see you’re already well aware!

    But sometimes seeing it in the actual paper itself is an even more “real” validation…

    John

  • Craig

    Alex,

    With uncanny timing, the New York Times just today (June 7th, 2010), published an 11 page article which discusses the many costs of technology on Families, Kids, Vacations and more. Here’s the link:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html

    What struck me about these two articles, is how little education we have given our children (or ourselves), about the pitfalls of technology on social interaction and family life. As a society, our acknowledgment of technology’s negative impact on interpersonal relationships today is perhaps where drunk driving or physical abuse was in the 60′s and 70′s…it’s lagging seriously behind the realities experienced daily by countless lives.

    Isn’t it time for our (1) educational system, (2) parents, and (3) society to take a stand against the negative impact of technology on social interaction and on families as has been done for drunk driving? As a society, we need to fight technology with our kids as forcefully and successfully as we’ve fought against and educated our kids on the dangers of drunk driving!

    I’ve printed out both articles to discuss with my children as the reasons why I outlaw playing with electronics while having friends over for playdates, why I outlaw cell phones from the dinner table and after 8pm at night with my kids, and why I place parental controls on the times my children can even just start up the computer and be “online.”

    What are other parents and people doing?

    Craig

    Craig: Couldn’t agree more this is a huge parental issue. One problem, of course, is that technology is changing so fast and kids are so good at adapting to it that parents must feel constantly one step behind. My two-year-old isn’t there yet, but my wife and I are thinking a lot about how we’re going to handle his access to technology when he is.

    Alex

  • Mary Carlisle

    Amazing post. I really like this one. I have to confess the Internet has been a bit of an addiction for me in the past. A couple of years ago I found myself really blocked on many levels as an artist and emotionally. The Internet was an escape. I found myself spending way to much of my time during the day on blogs, surfing the net and forming “cyber friendships” with people I never really knew or in the end I found to be way too erratic and unstable to have a real consistent stable connection with them. i even had my computer hacked into after I offended someone on a discussion board. I learned the hard way. You never really know who you’re talking to on the Internet. I thank God I had the clarity to see why I got into that rut and the wisdom to take action and change it.

    I ended up doing several of your suggestions and getting back on track in my life and spending a lot less time on the Internet, getting more writing done and nurturing my real life every day connections and friendships. I’m also a lot more careful about who I allow into my cyberworld now; basically I have to know who you are on Facebook. I’ve had to delete some people off my list that turned out to be a waste of my time in the end. It’s true people are braver on the Internet but in essence cowards because they would never say to your face what they say on the Internet. I even notice on this wonderful site you still get a few instigators with a few snide remarks but they seemed to have died out a lot since you started writing here because of your graceful non confrontational way you deal with it. The only ammunition you can give them is hostility back and when there’s none they move on.

    I also think the Internet has been an amazing tool for many reasons but like you said, it’s a way people use to work out differences it’s not good. I will always pick up the phone and call the person instead of responding to constant chatter back and forth; plus when you can’t hear the persons voice or see their expressions in person you don’t really know how they’re processing the information your telling them and vice versa.

    I notice this is a huge problem with the younger generation (my niece for example); she’ll send me text or emails that are only about really heavy topics one can only discuss in person or even talking on the phone. I usually always end up calling her but it seems there’s an air of discomfort like she can’t understand why we can’t just text each other about it. I think this is something we need to continually work on so our communication skills with each other don’t become weak.

  • A great list of suggestions for “electronic etiquette,” Alex.

    I discovered the hard way that even conducting business that appears to just be factual can be problematic. Without revealing too much personal information, let me just say that many years ago, my employer sent me an email asking if I’d take on some additional duties because another employee had unexpectedly left. I responded to him by email indicating that I might be able to but that I was concerned about the impact on my workload. In return, he wrote: “If you’re too busy, I’ll find someone else.”

    I thought this was a rather blunt reply but, foolishly, without calling him to talk about it, I left for a 10 day silent meditation retreat. Well, my mind was anything but silent. I came up with dozens of interpretations for his words, all of which reflected badly on me: he thought I wasn’t committed to the job; he thought I was being lazy…and so on and so on.

    As soon as I arrived home, I called him. It turned out that he meant exactly what he said. He was concerned that I was indeed too busy and, rather than push me on this, he thought he’d try to find someone else!

  • anne

    I just discovered this blog through a link with the “New Old Age” blog on the NY Times, and I’m really enjoying it, so thanks for that.

    My 3 youngest kids are now in their 20′s and were the first generation around here to have computers in the classrooms in elementary school. They were fluent keyboarders before they learned cursive handwriting. They were just hitting middle school when we got the Internet at home and cell phones. They think very differently about computers and electronica than their parents’ generation does.

    We were very protective about their computer and Internet use, but understood that their future would depend on being comfortable with and knowledgeable about it. Indeed, they are all fearless when it comes to new technology as it is introduced.

    What we learned was that, no matter how sheltered you keep your kids from technology, they will find ways as they grow up to access it, and whatever is accessible through it (kind of just like with our generation and the questionable things we were exposed to way back when). What matters most is your relationship with them; that they understand your values and why you have those values; that you value them as people; and that you communicate with them, even when that’s difficult. You have to set an example for them in your own life. Also, give them alternatives to sitting in front of a computer that reflect their interests (not necessarily just yours).
    And I can’t say it often enough: remind them often that there’s an “off” button! It seems obvious, but I think a lot of people’s compulsions could be contained if the electronica in their house was just turned off once in a while. Even talking about it makes them think about the fact that they have a choice to turn it off.

    Oh, and my kids are doing fine so far.

    Anne: Excellent advice. I don’t think your point about the relationship parents establish with their kids can be stressed enough, and not just regarding this issue but any undesirable behavior a good child/parent relationship can buffer against.

    Alex

  • Ronnie (girl)

    I can just raise my hand and say guilty in regard to Internet “friendships.” Some have grown, some have ended on a sour note. Without hearing the tone of a person’s voice, without seeing body language, without simply being able to ask the other to clarify, great misunderstanding can take place.

    I have found some of my “real life” friends contacting me via email instead of via telephone. Feeling this to be a rather cold form of communication I have started answering emails with a phone call. Odd how it put an end to email and once again began verbal communication.

    I can say my pet peeve is texting. I have seen people on their cells texting constantly. I simply call back when I am texted. I also advise the sender that I pay for each text so please don’t do it.

    I am the type of person that relies greatly on how the person says something, how my tone is when I speak (is there a giggle between words, is their a choke of sadness, is there a dull tone?).

    Our gift as humans to have language is blurred my the lack of emotion when we choose the internet or text to communicate. It is so limited.

    Great topic, thanks so much.

    A non-texting, very little email, real life person here >grins<
    Ronnie

  • I decided to get off of Facebook. Most of the “friends” I had weren’t friends at all. And my real friends…well, I like to talk with them on the phone and have real face time with them.

    Besides the privacy issue, Facebook, or the people on it, provide too much information. This is a case of less is more.

    Ken Leebow
    htttp://www.FeedYourHeadDiet.com

  • Thanks for this useful post.
    I read it in Kevin MD

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