In the past few weeks, one of my good friends lost a parent, another underwent major surgery and my son went through fraternity rush. How did I keep up on these major life events? Electronically.
Gone are the days of phone chains and mimeographed letters dispersing information. Now, we stay “in the loop” through Facebook, Skype or Face Time, emails, texts and community internet sites such as LotsaHelpingHands.
Much has been written lately about technology’s dark side — about how electronic devices can hinder productivity, increase our stress and workloads and serve as poor substitutes for “friend” time. I take all of that information to heart. For instance:
- In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT social science professor Sherry Turkle surmises that the technology that was created to ease communication between people actually ties them more to their devices and less to each other.
- While Facebook gives young people the illusion of tons of friends (many high school and college students count close to 1,000 on their pages), a good portion of those “friends” wouldn’t even merit a “Hello” in the school hallway.
- Facebook friendships tend to be superficial, and texts and emails rarely allow for truly intimate exchanges.
- Because many people now spend more time on “screens” than interacting in public, we have, on average, fewer close friends than we did 20 years ago (one or two close ones now, as opposed to three in the ‘90s), according to a study by the American Sociological Review.
- In that same study, fully 25 percent of people surveyed said they don’t have a single confidante – a deficit shown to cause health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and crippling depression.
- In fact, although the Internet has the potential for bringing people together in novel and powerful ways, at least one study has shown a direct correlation between Internet use, social isolation and depression.
- Facebook time is not a suitable substitute for face-to-face time. As the Redland, Calif.-based psychologist Tracy Covington points out, “The internet allows us the illusion of connections.” She points out that communicating through cyberspace is a “very different texture and experience” from real human contact. She draws this analogy: “It’s really fun to look at a little baby, but it’s a very different experience to hold one.”
At the same time, it’s hard to overlook the benefits of electronic communication:
- Quite simply, electronic devices such as computers, smart phones and iPads allow us to connect with friends in a wide variety of ways, with an ease and efficiency never possible in the past. For instance, we no longer need to continuously dial someone’s phone in hopes of catching them at home, wait for responses to questions via snail mail or thumb through city phone books in search of long-lost friends.
- A 2007 Michigan State University study of 800 undergraduates found that Facebook aficionados enjoyed more “social capital” than those without accounts, and that the regular users exhibited higher levels of “psychological well-being.”
- Another study found that frequent blogging not only results in higher perceived levels of social support, but also may serve as “the core of building intimate relationships.”
- Several researchers point out the electronic means can deepen friendships when used in companion with—not instead of—face-to-face interactions.
Because I have moved several times as an adult, I rely on email, texts and Facebook posts to communicate with old friends I wouldn’t otherwise take the time to write or call. For instance, more than a dozen of my college sorority sisters are connected via email, and we enjoy the ease and immediacy of sharing joys and sorrows, as well as of planning biennial reunions.
When I dropped my son off at college last month, I saw three old friends that I had recently reconnected with via Facebook. It was wonderful to spend time with a friend from high school, one from my study abroad program and another from my New York years, and to know they could serve as safety nets should my son need help, transportation or just a home-cooked meal.
Although my oldest son and I don’t often speak “live,” now that he’s at college, we do text almost every day. Yes, these exchanges are often shallow (usually requests for “reimbursement”), but they do serve as reminders that we are interested in each other’s lives. Every text my son sends ends in “xoxo” and makes me smile.
Yesterday, while my cousins were visiting from Atlanta, we Skyped with my Chicago-based brother, as well as his wife and one of his daughters. We all hadn’t been together for more than a year, and ended up feeling buoyed and energized by our brief visual connection.
Earlier this month, when my friend’s mother was ill, we communicated via brief texts – just enough for me to keep informed of the status, and for her to know that I was concerned about the situation. I was glad to avoid intrusive phone calls, and to receive the updates she could write when it was convenient.
This past week, a dear friend underwent major surgery, and I know I was not alone in waiting nervously for email updates. Her husband would never have been able to convey the information to as many people via phone lines. As my friend recovers, her network of friends will use the internet site LotsaHelpingHands to schedule meals, visits and dog walks.
So, while electronic communication should not take the place of real, face-to-face time with other humans, it does have its place. And many times this month alone (including my birthday, when I was deluged with Facebook birthday greetings), I have felt grateful for the technology.
- Linda Williams Rorem, 26 Sept. 2011