As with many similar questions, it’s not a black or white yes or no, but rather a grey in-a-sense-yes-in-a-sense-no. Modern technology, and largely the use of the internet has meant we don’t need to venture out as frequently, but alternatively frees up our time to directly socialise more often.
Consider it this way, twenty years ago if you wanted to hang out with some people, you would have to phone each person’s house, hoping that they were in and available to answer when you called; or for a more important event, mail each person a letter. Now it takes seconds to send a group text or a Facebook group message, and everyone can sync up their schedules instantaneously.
However, technology can provide a distraction or a hiding place as well. If you’re socially awkward, communicating solely through the emotionless filter of the web can be far more appealing; and using your phone/tablet/etc in public can avoid unwanted social contact. To say that everyone’s social lives are under threat now because of technology is a sweeping generalisation, that hardly makes sense of data; so I’m here to discuss the fears surrounding technology.
People spend more time talking online than in person
Obviously people spend more time talking online now than they did twenty years ago, because the internet hadn’t become as widespread as it is now. However, maybe there is a point to be made here. Certainly, while I was a teenager I had a number of friendships that consisted almost solely of communication through Facebook, but I think this was more of a product of circumstance.
For a start, almost everyone is more socially awkward when they are 16, it being a hormonal period of transition after all, and so the alternative was to not communicate at all with these people. Secondly, there were fewer places to go. I lived in a small town in the countryside at the age of 16, and transport wasn’t common. I was too young to drive, and bus services stopped quite early, so really I was limited to people who lived in town. As I was underage, I couldn’t meet up with friends in a pub (although I occasionally did, so long as most others were over 18) regularly. Given that I lived in a small town, there wasn’t a hell of a lot else to do, besides going to the park, which was only appealing during summer. Thirdly, I also had my parents to contend with. I didn’t have time for a job while in school so I relied upon them to give me money to socialise, which they wouldn’t and couldn’t always give me. They also needed to know where I was going and I wasn’t a very good liar.
Nowadays, I’m legal everywhere, I live in a city and transport is easy, I’m a lot more self-confident with the main part of puberty a decade behind me and I earn my own money and look after myself. As a result, I’m often out and socialising and I very rarely hold conversations online, unless they are necessary for organising an event, or some other business. All in all, there were many more conditions restricting me to communicating a lot via the internet than just convenience and impatience.
And besides, what would the skeptics have us do? Instant communication, whether it be via social media or through the phone, is far too useful to get rid of; trade, services, events, projects, etc are so much easier to organise thanks to these inventions.
It’s educating children to only communicate in that way.
Social media has only become common since 2000, so we’re going to have to wait a few years before we have the data on that for a start. However, similar fears were voiced by previous generations about TV and books, and yet neither medium has resulted in widespread isolation. If history is anything to go by, social media will not cause the younger generation to abandon face to face communication.
It’s also very condescending towards the children involved. If you were to raise a child in such a way that the only communication with the outside world was through social media, then maybe it would only feel comfortable communicating that way, but then that would be your fault as a parent. While sending your kids to school and taking them out and letting them experience the world, they will not forget the importance of communicating in person.
Some people think that we should impose restrictions on social media, like we do with alcohol or tobacco. How one would orchestrate that, I don’t know, but to do that suggests that there is nothing good about the internet, and it would be harmful not to educate children on how best to use it and its use in society. The reason we have so many alcoholics and smokers in the world is because people get to the age where they’re allowed to have it, but don’t understand explicitly its dangers and benefits, and therefore are more likely to abuse it, leading to addiction. Banning children from using the internet, mobile phones or computers would yield similar results.
It’s killed romance.
I’ve made arguments in previous articles both ways on whether online dating is a good or bad thing. In summary, I think that you’re exposed to so many more people through the internet is a good thing as you’re more likely to meet someone compatible with you; but we mustn’t forget that building relationships with people we know is just as important, and that despite what dating sites would have you believe – romantic relationships are not necessarily the key to happiness.
But again, I don’t think that it’s a problem with technology, rather the running of business. Consider instead protesting against the crony capitalism of online dating corporations and remember that it’s more profitable to them to keep you single for longer, so that you continue to pay for subscriptions etc.
Besides, social media can help with romantic encounters in real life. For instance, you can save yourself the embarrassment of flirting with someone who already has a significant other by looking at their relationship status on Facebook.
Online stores coax people into not wanting to leave the house.
It’s an odd argument, but I’ve heard many people using it. For a start, convenience saving time is a good thing. If I want to buy a bookshelf, I can just find one on Amazon and have it sent to me, rather than trying to organise a friend with a car to help me pick it up from Ikea (which is on the other side of the city to me). If I want to buy unusual clothes or an independent film, or a rare item; it’s so much easier to find it online, rather than spending all of my time trawling through stores in my city and others to find such things.
The point people try to make is that you could bump into someone and become friends/lovers with them whilst on such an adventure, but this point falls down because if you want to socialise with people who like the works of obscure filmmakers, or hand-carved pipes, you can easily find people with these interests online, and arrange to meet up with several people over a drink in a bar that you may not have heard about otherwise.
Besides, freeing up time is largely better for socialising anyway. If someone stays inside all the time and only accepts deliveries, ie they only would leave the house to get supplies, then there’s something more than an addiction to technology happening; and whether that person has an anxiety disorder, or is just simply shy; you won’t be able to bully them into socialising by taking away their comforts.
Technology has infiltrated our social lives too far.
This one has more of a ring of truth about it, and these fears are a staple of a lot of modern sci-fi; especially Charlie Brooker’s seminal series, Black Mirror. But even in his work, the obsessions with social media are a comment on humanity’s abuse of the technology, not the technology itself. Whether people are too concerned with their social media profiles or use social media to commit murders, it speaks of more deeper rooted problems in society that have manifested into how people use the social media.
In another way, when I play at an open mic, a lot of people in the pub are ignoring me and looking at their phones or other devices, but when I’m playing a bigger gig, or when I’m seeing my favourite bands play, the attention of everyone is rapt to the performers. If you want people to be distracted from their devices, you have to cut through the background noise – be more interesting. Anyone would rather spend time with someone they love, be taken off on an adventure or experience an amazing event first hand than sit and stare glumly at a screen.
In summary, while people are more reliant on technology today than ever and if careless could abuse it; it’s patronising to humanity to suggest that we cannot control our own creations. I certainly would have much less of a social life had it not been for the internet, in fact there are few people that I would know now, who I would have even met in real life at all without communication technology, but despite having so much access to it, I still do the majority of my interactions with other people face-to-face. But then, maybe that’s because I can remember a time before the internet; only time will tell if the next generation survive.