How many people do you count as your true friends? Are they close friends that you trust and have regular contact with or are they social media relationships sans the intimacy of face-to-face interactions? In today’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks points to research that shows there has been a decline in the number of high-quality friendships in the past three decades as he pondered the role that social media might play in this drop.
Brooks notes that in a 1985 poll, most Americans said they had about three people with whom they could share everything. But now most people say they have about two. Likewise, Brooks explains, “In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no one to fully confide in, but by the start of this century 25 percent of Americans said that.”
Opinions vary about the role of social media in changing our habits and our interactions with others. If you own a smartphone as nearly 2/3s of Americans and close to 2 billion people worldwide do, it probably won’t surprise you that a British study found we check our phones on average 221 times a day. I know that my habits have changed since I started using an iPhone two years ago. Now when I find myself alone at a restaurant I scroll through my email, read the news online and check Facebook. In the past I might have brought a book with me to read or glanced around the room and watched other diners eating their meals or even focused on what I was eating. When my husband and I watch television, if I find my attention wandering from what is playing on the TV screen, I pick up my smartphone and play Words With Friends with two of my friends who also play the game. This irritates my husband and I have made an effort to do it less often.
Now Words With Friends does let me interact with two close friends who I also make an effort to see in real time as often as possible. But I am aware that I have become more easily bored and with a smartphone always near, I tend to check what’s happening in the world throughout the day. Has this made me less interested in being with real people? Has it made me less likely to get together with friends? No. But I do worry about younger people who may not have cemented those tight friendships yet that make you want to pick up the phone and chat with your BFF or make a date to get together for lunch.
But perhaps technology is having other impacts on me that I don’t recognize. An article at The Conversation called “Virtual Distance: Technology is Rewriting the Rulebook for Human Interaction” by Karen Sobel-Lojeski and Martin Westwell explains that, “Virtual distance is a psychological and emotional sense of detachment that accumulates little by little, at the sub-conscious or unconscious level, as people trade-off time interacting with each other for time spent ‘screen skating’ (swiping, swishing, pinching, tapping, and so on).” This has unintended consequences. People can become distrustful of one another and be less likely to exhibit helping behaviors.
While I don’t think that has happened to me yet, I am aware that the additional time I spend on a screen means less time for other activities, even if it’s just staring into space, lost in thought. I know I have to pay attention to this, especially since technology keeps evolving and finding new and engaging ways to occupy our attention.
So I’m making a commitment to more people time and less screen time, more blog writing and less blog reading, more creative engagement and less picking up my iPhone if I’m bored, and more time being with a friend and less time playing Words With Friends. Well, I’m not so sure about that last pledge. I really do like playing Words With Friends.