Are We Too Wired?
We live in a digital world and rarely disconnect from it. Facebook has 1.8 billion users, and Instagram has about 600 million monthly users. Snapchat’s 158 million daily users post some 2.8 billion snaps every day. Most of us walk around with smartphones (see graph, below) that we use to post our statuses and get constant updates and photos from our friends.
So is there a downside to being so wired? Two experts—one a public policy researcher and the other the head of a digital communications company—weigh in.
Are We Too Wired?
Since 2010, the number has more than tripled.
About a year and a half ago, I attended a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, that gathered 450 “changemakers” to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. I thought the participants would emerge with new relationships and perspectives on complex issues such as poverty and climate change. Instead, participants spent the meeting glued to their phones, taking selfies and sharing on Facebook.
This experience is typical of a shift in values taking place in our society. Increasingly, we’re spending time engaged in activities less for their own intrinsic value and more for how we will look to others if we’re seen on social media doing them.
I think something important is lost in the process of sharing so much of ourselves online. Social media “likes” and new followers provide us with public approval, but this need for constant sharing of ourselves—and the immediate gratification that comes with it—diminishes the meaning and significance of the things we share. Some parts of our lives are worth keeping private.
Constant online sharing can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Many of the relationships we form online are largely superficial, and the constant online sharing has psychological consequences. A handful of studies, including one recently conducted by the University of Michigan, suggest that increased Facebook usage contributes to anxiety and even depression. We are constantly seeing what others are doing and paying attention to their lives as
they unfold in real time. That deepens our anxiety and uncertainty about whether we are leading lives that fulfill our own potential.
Lost in the online sharing and advice-gathering is the fundamental ability to reflect on questions by ourselves, taking as much time as we need to come to our own decisions. In short, because of our growing dependence on constant digital connectedness, we have become afraid of spending time alone.
Fellow, Canada’s Public Policy Forum
Humans are social creatures, so we naturally seek out opportunities to connect with others. The internet is particularly effective in helping us do that.
The positive influence of the internet in terms of human connection is evident in many areas. Music, sports, and culture spread easily across the globe, providing powerful links across international borders. Twitter allows me to share my opinion on the issues I care about—much as I would at the dining room table. The key difference is that I’m now able to tap into a global community, not just a local one.
The internet also enables people to easily engage with causes they care about—and make an impact on the world. Consider the ALS ice bucket challenge. Thanks to 2.2 million Twitter mentions and 2.4 million Facebook videos, it swept across the nation in the summer of 2015. In the challenge, people dumped a bucket of ice water over themselves to raise awareness about the debilitating disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The ice bucket challenge raised more than $115 million that ended up leading to a major scientific breakthrough.
The internet helps us seek out opportunities to connect with others.
When I first began researching social media in 2004, it was assumed that people who chose to interact online did so because real-world social opportunities were closed off to them. But studying teenagers who used chat rooms, I discovered a generation of digital natives who were as socially adjusted as their peers.
In fact, many studies have shown that people who connect with others online are less likely to be socially isolated than their peers who don’t. One kind of digital interaction, online dating, is now the second-most-common way to meet someone. And couples who have met online have marriages that are just as strong as those who met in real life.
There are aspects of social media that cause more harm than good. But overall, the deeper connections that take place online make it easier than ever to engage with the world and change it for the better.
—NOA GAFNI SLANEY,
Founder & Chief Executive, Impact Squared