This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is the impact of technology on social interaction? Do you think the advent of digital communication devices has had more of a positive or a negative effect on the way people interact?
Advances in technology have undoubtedly had a profound impact on social interaction. Specifically, the advent of digital communication devices has significantly reduced the need for face-to-face exchanges, favoring the easier and faster alternative of social media apps.
In this article, we’ll discuss the negative impact of technology on social interaction and some ways to revive the old-fashioned face-to-face exchange.
Dissecting the Impact of Technology on Social Interaction
The human brain evolved to be extremely sophisticated in navigating social interactions because relationships have always been vital to humans’ health and survival: When our ancient ancestors lived in tribes, each individual’s survival depended on whether her relationships with other members of the tribe supported cooperation and goodwill. However, digital communication has replaced most face-to-face and phone conversations, but texts, comments, and emails fail to feed people’s deep psychological social needs. So, the impact of technology on social interaction seems to be detrimental.
Social Interactions Are Essential to Your Well-Being
Humans are wired to be social. In fact, scientists have revealed that during moments of mental idleness, certain areas of the brain continue to think about your social connections. When you communicate with people face-to-face, on the phone, or over a video call—any means that’s not text-based—it stretches your mental muscles for social connection, such as reading body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Humans evolved over millions of years to perform the immense mental feat of having face-to-face conversations, and we must continue to use these skills to prevent them from atrophying.
In the 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle drew a key distinction between connection and conversation. Turkle, who specializes in Social Studies of Science and Technology, wrote that conversation refers to the rich, face-to-face communication that draws on humans’ evolutionary social skills, while mere connection refers to the low-level forms of communication that take place online. Conversation—not connection—is a rich human experience because:
- It requires you to practice listening and interpreting nonverbal communication
- It allows you to feel heard and understood
- It helps you to develop empathy
When you replace most of your conversations with digital, text-based communication, your evolutionary social skills become dull. If you don’t use them, you eventually lose your social skills and become unable to satisfy your deep-seated social needs. In the book, Turkle illustrates this with case studies that describe:
- Adolescents who have a hard time being empathetic because they haven’t had enough practice reading facial expressions to interpret what other people are feeling
- Young professionals who avoid face-to-face conversations in favor of email, even though the email exchanges sometimes cause miscommunications that create lingering tensions
- An adult who has grown so accustomed to putting on some level of performance in her online life that she loses sight of the line between who she is and who she pretends to be
Digital Communication Doesn’t Feed Our Social Needs
If human brains have evolved to crave social connection, why do we constantly use inadequate digital communication tools? One obvious reason is that they’re easier and faster than the alternatives, and—in addition to being wired for social connection—humans evolved to seek out the most efficient ways of doing things, despite the trade-offs. This contradictory wiring leads to behaviors such as:
- Compulsively checking your phone for updates and messages, even when your frequent distractions and interruptions undermine the quality time you’re spending with the person right next to you
- Spending so much time on digital devices that you have little left for richer forms of social interaction
- Neglecting to initiate meaningful, non-text communication with friends and family because you mistakenly think that your digital communication is an adequate substitute
Since the rise of social media and digital communication, many scientists have set out to determine how this form of social interaction affects people. The results have been contradictory:
- Some studies that tracked participants’ specific social media activities (such as posting and commenting) found that when they were more engaged online, they felt more connected with their social circles.
- Other studies that tracked participants’ overall time spent on social media discovered that when they spent more time online, they felt more isolated.
The distinction lies in how versus how much people use social media. When people use specific features that facilitate communication, they feel more connected—but when they spend too much time on social media in general, it robs them of their time for more meaningful offline social interactions. In other words, while social media can keep you somewhat connected with your circle, it can’t come close to meeting your social needs. When people replace their offline social lives with online communication, they’re left feeling unhappy and lonely.
Transform How You Use Digital Communication Tools
In order to maintain your communication skills and fulfill your social needs, you must not only incorporate more conversation into your life, but also change the way you use digital communication tools. Merely supplementing your digital connections with real-life conversations won’t create the fundamental shift you need for significant, sustained changes—rather, harness digital tools and use them to promote meaningful interactions, rather than replace them.
To shift the balance between your connections and your conversations, adopt the conversation-centric communication philosophy. This philosophy draws a hard line between connection and conversation: They are not merely two means of accomplishing the same social goals. Instead, only conversation—in person or via phone or video call—truly contributes to your relationships. Accordingly, connection via digital (text-based) communication should only be used for two purposes:
- Planning and coordinating conversations
- Sharing simple logistical information
In other words, connection should only be used to support conversation, not to supplement or substitute for it. When you change your objective, it will inherently change the way you use those tools:
- You no longer need to browse through your newsfeeds to like and comment on posts.
- You don’t need digital communication tools like social media and messaging apps available on your phone if you’re only using them for logistical purposes, especially because they often distract from real conversations. Instead, you can access these platforms only at your computer.
- You won’t engage in text-based conversations (via text messages, email, or social media messages). Instead, you can suggest continuing the conversation on the phone or in person.
When you adopt conversation-centric communication practices, there will be consequences:
- The number of people you actively communicate with will almost certainly shrink. It takes time and attention to maintain meaningful communication with people, and you won’t have enough time to keep up that effort with everyone you follow on social media. You might initially feel lonely as you watch your social circle appear to shrink.
- The relationships that survive this shift will become stronger. Instead of maintaining constant connection with a large network of weak ties and acquaintances, you’ll enjoy meaningful communication with a smaller group of close friends.
Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationships
Shifting the way that you think about and use your digital communication tools can be difficult, especially when those tools are already an established part of your relationships. Here are some strategies that can help you make the transition:
1) Stop clicking “like” and leaving social media comments. As we’ve talked about, these are shallow forms of interaction that don’t feed your need for social connection, and they create the illusion that you’re communicating. As a result, these actions actually undermine your effort to strengthen your relationships through meaningful interactions.
If you’re tempted to comment on your cousin’s photo of her baby, call or visit her instead. Once you stop engaging on social media, you will probably lose some relationships that were based only on social media interaction. While that will feel like a loss, it ultimately leaves you with more time and energy to invest in fewer, more meaningful relationships.
2) Text only during certain times and for specific purposes. Text messages are a major aspect of communication in most relationships—so much so that it isn’t feasible for most people to stop texting altogether. Since ongoing text conversations create distractions and frequent interruptions, change the way you text: Use text messages only to exchange logistical information, such as setting up a time for a phone conversation or face-to-face meeting. Additionally, keep your phone on Do Not Disturb mode so that you don’t receive text notifications, and then designate times when you’ll check and respond to text messages. If you need to, adjust your phone settings to allow calls to come through from certain people.
Leaving your phone on Do Not Disturb allows you to go through your day without text messages distracting you, so that you can be more present in the real world. This will also improve your relationships, because your refusal to engage in conversation via text will push you and your friends and family to set aside time for more meaningful communication. Consider letting people know that you check texts a few times a day, and that they can call if they need to reach you urgently (and be sure to add their phone numbers to the list of allowed calls).
3) Designate days and times for conversations. Just like college professors hold office hours, during which students can drop by their office to discuss assignments and issues, set aside days and times to have conversation office hours. When people try to instigate a conversation via text or email, simply tell them you’d love to continue the discussion, and that they can call or meet you during your conversation office hours. This strategy prevents anyone from hesitating to call you for fear of interrupting something, and it blocks out time for you to invest in meaningful conversation.
If you commute home during rush hour, tell people they can call you any weekday at 5:30. Alternatively, hold your conversation office hours in a local coffee shop where people can drop by, or implement regular walks when people can join you or you can talk on the phone.
Exercise: How Can You Strengthen Your Relationships?
Reflect on how you could improve communication with your closest friends and family.
- Name two of the most important people in your life.
- How do you generally keep in touch with each of these two people?
- What is one way you could decrease some of that text-based interaction and increase face-to-face or phone communication?
- If you were to implement conversation office hours, what day(s) and time(s) would you schedule them?
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- Why you're addicted to technology (and how tech companies feed your addictions)
- How a focus on social media is bad for real-life relationships
- How to transform your tech habits to get the best benefits without the drawbacks