Thursday, May 24, 2012

From Face-to-Face to Facebook

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.”

Sandberg’s 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.

This 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.

If 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.

Almost 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 seconds.

To 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.

Yet 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.

I 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.

Yet 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.

Your 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.

Every 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.

When 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).


  1. Wonderful post on time spent on social media.

  2. Wonderful post on time spent on social media.