In The World In 2012 issue of The Economist, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote an article where she, unsurprisingly, extols the benefits of Facebook and social media, pointing to the realms of our lives where it has brought us together: political rallies, online philanthropy, the sharing of photos, videos, and other information with the people we care about. She then declares that “The science-fiction writers of the last century envisioned a world where modernity led to alienation. In fact, the opposite has occurred.”
treatise is not supported by a recent study by sociology professor
Matthew Brashears of Cornell University, who asked 2,000 adults the
number of friends with whom they could discuss “important matters.” The
average response was 2.03, down from a similar study conducted just
before the widespread use of the Internet and social networks in 1985,
which yielded an average response of three close friends.
news is not entirely new, it turns out. The National Opinion Research
Center at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting a General
Social Survey of 1,400 American adults since 1972, compared responses
from 1985 to 2004 and discovered that, on average, each person had 2.94
close friends with whom they could discuss important matters in 1985,
and by 2004 their number of close confidantes had decreased to 2.08. In
the Chicago study, people who responded that they had no one with whom
to discuss important matters more than doubled during this period, to
nearly 25 percent.
it is indeed true, as these surveys suggest, that we are, on average,
losing 30 percent of our close friends in only two decades, then these
surveys signal a shift toward social isolation that is disconcerting and
needs to be addressed. Yet we must first accept the sobering reality of
our lives in the third millenium: computers, the internet, and social
media are here to stay. To argue against their utility would be as
futile as railing against the existence of any new technology that
gained widespread usage quickly, such as the typewriter in the 1870s, or
the telephone or television in the 1920s.
a century later, the computer—whether in desktop, laptop, tablet, or
smart-phone form—is all of the above inventions wrapped up in one
unprecedentedly addictive little package. Many of us have become like a
child taking up residence in a candy shop, over-indulging in a novelty
we never thought we would be able to avail ourselves of: even two
decades ago it would have been unthinkable to access a video or
information about just about anything we can imagine, with as much
detail as an Encyclopedia Britannica (remember them? They just closed
their print business and have gone online like the rest), within
help you understand the significance of this historic moment, let’s
take a look at another mass invention no one had dreamed of until it
arrived. When Henry Ford developed an automobile that “the common man”
could afford in 1908, his invention generated the nationwide development
of highways, suburbs, drive-thru restaurants, and many other amenities
for the recently mobile. After the car was invented, people sought any
reason to be in one, making any excuse to go for a drive. It was all the
rage, for example, to go to drive-in theaters. After many decades,
people decided they really didn’t need to be in their cars while
watching a movie, and drive-in theaters faded into obscurity. We are
undergoing a similar acculturation with a new technology, and our
current obsession with digital gadgets will, like our propensity to jump
into our cars at the drop of a hat, not disappear, but diminish to a
more manageable level.
until we are able to step out of the candy store, my concern is that,
for our generation of people, our experience of real life is being
poignantly compromised. As the studies indicate, never in human history have we been in contact with so many people and connected with so few.
People who, like the Facebook COO, claim that we have never been so
connected with each other are missing a vital point: the people making
all these “connections” through the internet and social media are, at
the end of the day, sitting alone in front of a pixilated screen typing
about what they enjoy rather than looking into the eyes of a human being
and actually doing it.
am a leadership and life coach, and at a recent conference I asked 300
people to share what they had done over the previous month that had most
contributed to their happiness. There were about thirty
responses—ranging from “spending time with my daughter,” and “going
dancing” to “going for a long hike in the mountains”—not one of which
involved time spent online.
if computers, the internet, and social media are here to stay—and, like
the automobile or any other innovation that has significantly increased
efficiency for the masses at an affordable price, they are—then the
million-dollar question is “What can we do to recover our friendships
and our happiness in this uber-technology age?” I have been coaching
executives and individuals on work-life balance for almost two decades
now, and all of the strategies that I have seen people successfully
implement to reclaim their lives from their digital addiction have
centered around one principle: You control technology, not the other way around.
laptop, iPad, or cell-phone is merely a tool. An addictively fun little
tool, yes; yet still just a tool. The critical challenge in the third
millennium is the same as in the first: to develop a Vision for how you
want to live your life. How does your best version of your Self desire
you to spend your time from day to day? How do they want you to act
toward the people you care about? What do they want you to be remembered
for? Whatever emanates from this self-dialogue is how you should be
spending your time. If you can use your clever online tools to achieve
some of your most important life goals, then by all means do so. Yet
every other moment you spend on your iPad, smart-phone, or laptop is as
beneficial to your life as getting into your car and putting the pedal
to the metal without a destination.
moment of every day you are making decisions about how you will spend
your time. If your goal is to have close friends to share your life
with, then determine how you will allocate your time to build those
friendships. If you want to spend more time in reality and less time
sitting behind a screen typing into a keypad about your interpretation
of reality, then design some strategies to limit your virtual time, such
as a daily maximum number of hours for computer-based activities.
your laptop or smart-phone is adding value to your life, then you are
at balance and headed toward a destination you can be proud of. The
moment your addiction causes you to surpass this healthy level, it’s
time to spend some time offline—in a place where you feel centered,
serene, and inspired—thinking about what you value so you can truly
reach your potential and live your desired life. This time alone—which,
when practiced regularly, will enable you to connect with your heart and
your deepest values—will guide you to spend less time in front of your
computer, to spend more time making a heart connection with others, and
to venture out into this vast, wonderful world that awaits you.
Do you control technology, or is it the other way around? How do you cope with the digital addiction? Tell us about it in the comments.
Anthony Silard is the president of The Global Leadership Institute and the author of the Simon & Schuster book The Connection: Link Your Passion, Purpose, and Actions to Make a Difference in the World. To receive Smile, It's Monday each week in your inbox and a free copy of Anthony's new audio CD, "The Surprising Source of Your Passion", enter your email here (1-step only).