Ever since the 90s – a decade in which personal computers began infiltrating households around the world – there has been a constant debate about whether the growing presence of the Internet and computing technology in our lives have been a net benefit or hindrance to social interaction. Some say that we are becoming more isolated because of our inability to peel our eyes away from our screens. Others say that the Internet puts us in situations in which we can interact and exchange ideas with cultures that until a few decades ago have been nearly inaccessible. To properly analyze these arguments we must first explore their reasoning.
The Isolating Factor
Articles like this one written by Rebecca Harris for The Telegraph provide a solid argument for the thesis that technology has introduced more social isolation. In her piece she cites the Church of England’s reports of increased social isolation in their local communities. The Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society agrees with this, noting in its analysis of the U.S. that people who spend a significant amount of time on the Internet interact with their families less by an average of seventy minutes. People who argue that technology is isolating us socially often define social isolation as a sharp reduction in deeper relationships with people who are more likely to have genuine concern over their daily lives.
The Uniting Factor
Renowned sociologist Charles Cooley has said, “What a strange practice it is, when you think of it, that a man should sit down to his breakfast table and, instead of conversing with his wife, and children, hold before his face a sort of screen on which is inscribed a world-wide gossip!” It may seem relatable if not for the fact that this was written in 1909 regarding delivery of the daily newspaper. While it’s a rather knife-edged comparison to make, it still doesn’t do much to prove that today’s technology (which is vastly different in its nature to the newspaper) unites us socially. It should be asserted, however, that people are now presented with the possibility of keeping in touch with older and more distant friends in ways that were previously unimaginable.
Conclusion: It’s All Up to You
I like to equate the act of checking up on your smartphone to eating. In moderation, it is fine, but once you start doing it excessively you’re paving the road to an unhealthy habit. People who have a dependency on their smartphones tend to get very anxious when their battery runs out or they forget to bring it along on a ten-minute walk.
As for social isolation, it’s really all up to individual choice. The internet and technology didn’t isolate people; it gave them a means to isolate themselves. On the other side of the coin it also gives you a chance to enhance your personal relationships and keep in touch with your family. I contact my mother 9,000 km away on a regular basis thanks to Facebook and Romania’s advantageous wireless subscriptions. A couple of decades ago the most convenient way of doing this would have been through telegraph. A century ago we would be writing letters that would take a very long time to reach their destination.
The Internet provides each of us with a chance to forge relationships with people who would have otherwise remained in our memories. Old high school friends, and even those we’ve been with since elementary school, are all on platforms like Facebook. This also applies to cousins we grew up with and haven’t seen since we were young boys and girls. The opportunity is there for us to take it.
Go ahead and switch tabs to contact someone you miss right now, then come back and let’s have a nice discussion about what effect you believe technology has had on you!