In Monday’s entry on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we promised to explore and address the reasons for specific difficulties you may be encountering in your relationships as a result of the Digital Age. Today, we dive in!

Despite the vast and significant nature of changes made by technology on social dynamics, their specific effects are often frustratingly difficult to pin down. When are we made uncomfortable and what makes us uncomfortable? From what source does this discomfort originate? We think that one of the greatest difficulties and leading sources of discomfort created by the Digital Age is the problem of self-esteem. This is the subject we will focus on today.

Maybe in the Digital Age, you and I don’t feel that we deserve as much attention from ourselves or others because of two simple things:

1) An established connection to the network creates an expectation that you will dedicate a great deal of time and effort to fielding often unremitting contact in the form of virtual communication from others,
while simultaneously… 

2) Contacting others and not receiving a timely response can lead to feelings of frustration and anxiety about the perceived lack of attention and care from the person you are contacting.

Though we may understand on an intellectual level that these expectations are unreasonable, their emotional impact is hard to banish from our daily experience!

The subject of anxiety in virtual communication is one that comes up often in certain situations, such as when young people talk about texting response-time in their introduction to the dating world, or when parents talk about their kids not responding to attempts at contact while away from home. But the subject of self-esteem seems in general to be a bit of a taboo. Who wants to talk about faltering self-confidence in connection with using social media? Who wants to talk about experiencing strong emotions in reaction to such seemingly insignificant events? Almost no one, barring the researchers.
It’s a sensitive subject in part because it seems so embarrassing – it may feel humiliating to feel like a burden just because someone didn’t respond to your text messages, or to worry too much about what this means. 

To keep thinking: Why aren’t they paying attention? Do they not care? Am I not important to them? Am I not important?

When you are busy and don’t have time to respond, you likely feel that it’s completely reasonable to take your time. But often not so when the situation is reversed! The persistent feeling that everyone has their phones all the time – the feeling that grows each time we see each other completely plugged-in to our devices – often causes us to worry that our messages have been received and are simply being ignored. That we are being ignored.
So the answer is no. 

Feeling a decline in self-esteem as a result of small frustrations and hurts in the world of virtual communication is not embarrassing. It is completely understandable. The demands of this crazy new system of social connection are unreasonable. 

Your discomfort is normal – it’s the cultural norms that are abnormal. The effort to transfer human contact (everyday attempts at complete, genuine, reliable connection) into the world of devices and gadgets is actually weird. As we feel that our attempts to connect (bids) are continually ignored or rejected, these small frustrations and hurts add up, and they begin to coalesce into something bigger and more troubling – a minor but uninterrupted assault on self-image in a social space devoid of opportunity for deep, complex emotional expression. 

The psychological effects of communicating in cyberspace are by no means inconsequential, or trivial. They are just as real and relevant as our feelings offline. 

This should be an acceptable point of view to express.

When these phenomena undermine our capacity for healthy relationships with others, they also undermine our ability to retain a realistic image of ourselves. We lose our aptitude for relying on a stable inner representation of ourselves – of our goals and dreams and of the direction of our lives – not least because we feel that we have no time to stop and think about these things. These significant questions require regular time for reflection, and the difficulty of finding this time in our increasingly fast-paced world only means that we must make a greater effort to give ourselves the attention that we deserve!

To bring our society into a greater understanding of the effects of technology on individuals and relationships will take some time. These changes in the social world are, after all, creating a very sudden shift in our culture. But if you want, you can choose to make changes now. If you intentionally choose to come together with others in person, and to devote greater attention and direct your focus towards yourself and those around you, you can build and strengthen deep, satisfying human bonds with surround-sound and endless potential.


More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: Self-Esteem

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.