Are we stranding ourselves on digital islands of isolation?
We evolved from using grunts to spoken language, from smoke signals to letters, and from telephones to emails. In modern society, digitisation has revolutionised how we interact with one another and function as a global community. Our communicative technology has progressed to the point where we can contact most corners of the Earth almost instantly from a device that fits in our pockets. A vast amount of electronically-archived knowledge is readily searchable with an internet connection.
However, with great power comes great responsibility, requiring diligence on the part of the user to avoid the accompanying pitfalls. If we’re not careful, these same elements that enable interconnectedness can also provide the means for us to distance ourselves from one another, leading towards physical, emotional and social isolation.
Face-to-face interactions are filtered by a digital technology interface in many facets of everyday life. Restaurants are starting to replace menus with iPads and food servers with robots. Full-length live music concerts can be viewed online without needing to leave your apartment or even getting dressed. Talking to someone no longer requires you to locate and directly speak to them, as we can broadcast high-quality live streams with just a few clicks.
Yet, our biological bodies are evolutionarily lagging, and much of the information that our brains comprehend from face-to-face communication comes from non-verbal cues, such as body language. This digital conversion increases the chance of misinterpretation, since a keyboard of emojis and GIFs are insufficient to capture the spectrum of nuance subconsciously conveyed by other non-verbal communications.
We are affected by technology even when we are not actively engaged with it. Studies have shown that the mere presence of a mobile device on a table during a conversation is enough to negatively impact the quality of the self-reported social connection between a conversing pair.
Ubiquitous access to digital technology drives temporal isolation, as the nature of our working society changes. Many have been liberated from the rigid Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm work schedule that was once the norm. Expanding capabilities of technology allow more work to be done remotely, shifting expectations from hourly logs to completed assignments. This trend crosses international borders: in 2016, 43% of Americans reported spending some time working remotely, and 1 in 3 Australians regularly worked from home.
Eliminating daily detrimental commutes saves both time and stress, and permits flexibility to work unusual hours, which can be helpful when managing responsibilities such as childcare. However, while atypical working hours accommodate diverse lifestyles, they can also foster social isolation. The companionship of simply being near coworkers regularly is lost, which can lead to loneliness.
Another growing trend is the expansion of user-centrism in our digital experiences. The ever-multiplying choices afforded through technologies endow consumers with the power to craft a unique world experience. For example, only a few years ago, to listen to a music playlist that varied beyond a single album required surrender to a radio DJ, whose music preferences were broadcast to a vast audience. These days, anyone can have complete control over a Spotify playlist for each day of the week, with millions of songs to chose from.
While the enhanced capability for long-distance communication, work flexibility and customisation is alluring, there is a darker side to technology use. The increased daily flow of media content may affect our ability to empathise, as we suppress our emotions in order to cope with the rush of information. Studies also show that smartphone use can be addictive, making some users have withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and mood issues when use is restricted.
To examine one of the major causes of our dependence, we need not look farther than well-studied pathways in our brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that rewards our brain for beneficial behaviours, and encourages us to repeat them. This circuit is activated by many types of pleasurable activities, including positive social interactions, listening to music, exercise, meditation, and high-quality sleep.
In the 21st century, we have trained our brains to expect a dopamine hit when we check social media, thereby conditioning ourselves to integrate electronic use into our positive reward-seeking habits. Corporations are not only aware of this, but actively exploit it, as social media consumers are treated like addicted gamblers grasping for the jackpot. Like playing a slot machine, we never know how many refreshes of which social media newsfeed is going to give us the positive stimulation we crave, drawing us to constantly check them all.
It is not just adults being affected. Through the form of targeted interactive media, digital technology is quickly becoming incorporated into the lives of children from an early age. Young kids are interacting with powerful devices well before they are old enough to fully understand them. Childhood is a rapid period of mental and emotional growth when we expand our imagination and develop social skills that are vital in our adult lives. However, the effortlessness of digital media consumption can disincentivise the application of internal creative skills for self-entertainment. Increasingly, a backyard game of make-believe is replaced by a virtual meet-up in online video games. The landscape of child play has expanded beyond dependence on the internally focused pretend play into a reality of constant external interaction. We are well aware of the necessity of creativity across disciplines, and it is important to practice creativity from a young age.
Research has shown that excessive digital media use correlates with worsened depressive symptoms in adolescents and exacerbated behavioural issues in young adolescents. In light of this, many experts propose media caution around young children, and particularly limits on screen time for kids and teens. Studies have shown that high levels of social media use are associated with perceived social isolation, which is known to have adverse effects on cognitive health.
Appropriately channelled, there is great potential for interactive digital media to reinforce community bonds. Dr Warren Buckleitner, founder and editor of Children’s Technology Review, and Assistant Professor of Interactive Multimedia at The College of New Jersey, remains optimistic about the benefits that interactive media can offer to children when managed properly. As a byproduct of an evolving culture, he says, “technology can enhance and diminish social interactions”. Although there are self-contained, single-player games that, upon addiction, can diminish social skills, many popular multiplayer games such as Fortnite allow players to cooperate and “spend time with abstract problem-solving situations”.
Meanwhile, academic controversy on the topic persists because both digital technology innovation and childhood development research are “packed full of variables.” Buckleitner uses his ABS (Access, Balance, Support) model to ensure that these tempting forces of digital media are leveraged to counteract the poor habits which can allow isolation to flourish. This approach stipulates that kids have access to digital media in balance with engaging analogue stimuli, and are supported by parents and educators who can effectively teach responsible digital navigation.
While the digital revolution has transformed the way in which we interact with the world around us, fascinatingly, it is structurally similar to our offline social dynamics. Research shows that digital networks are largely complementary to the offline networks, and are not mutually exclusive with real-life encounters. This suggests that social networking can work to amplify our own social connection and exacerbate our internal tendencies, be them inwardness or extroversion.
The near-infinite amount of content that digital media delivers ranges from mentally stimulating puzzle-based games to binge-able seasons of television that promote sedentariness. The consumer can fine-tune the amount of engagement that they seek, which augments their underlying predispositions, for better or worse.
This can be particularly problematic for “young adults who are feeling alienated from parents, peers, or are depressed”, says Dan Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Romer is the director of the Adolescent Communication Institute, and elaborates: “while the online digital world is not depressogenic in and of itself, if you’re going in that direction and are using it as a way to escape because you are feeling isolated, then under those conditions it can be harmful.” The key idea here is that the problem isn’t the digital media itself, but how it is used and the healthy social interactions that it is replacing.
If we do not pay careful attention, we are at risk of falling into a digital rabbit hole that isolates us. By sidestepping these obstacles, there is tremendous opportunity for enrichment. We can take advantage of the wealth of knowledge available for our own intellectual improvement. We can transcend temporal and spatial boundaries to maintain contact with distant loved ones. It is critical that we remain mindful of the ways in which we use digital technology, such that we maximise our social benefit while keeping our heads.
Edited by Sumudu Narayana and Ellen Rykers.