With the coming of The Digital Age, our perspective on human connection has been transformed. The tech-revolution’s steadily increasing influence on our patterns of relating (or not relating) to each other often undermines our bonds with those we love. It powerfully warps our sense of self and other. These changes are redefining the fabric of society, answering the question implicit in the title of Sherry Turkle’s insightful book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

We understand now that the habits most of us naturally formed in response to the tech-revolution can be toxic to our relationships. Our society simply wasn’t prepared to deal with initially subtle changes that the Digital Age brought with it, and it’s hard to argue that we had much of an opportunity to react.

But take heart: Though the formation of unhealthy habits was almost-certainly-in-large-part unavoidable, now that we can see clearly, we can take charge! We can use our perspective to take a good hard look at our behavior and adjust it to our liking. Conscious of our complicity, we can modify our approach to overcoming these challenges. We owe it to each other and to ourselves!

Technology has enabled us to bridge enormous distances in a fraction of a second – to talk on the phone, send an email, text, and video chat with people on the other side of the planet. Our computers and phones bring us comfort and joy in many ways, creating countless opportunities for connection that are appreciated not only by those in long-distance relationships but by couples, friends, and families all over the world. Communication technology – this marvelous thing – comes with a price. In the moments when our appreciation for it wanes – when we experience its limitations – we become conscious of the price we are paying. Unfortunately, in the whirlwind of demands bestowed upon us by our busy days, focusing on this problem is hard to afford. In reading this, you are choosing to invest time and energy into examining this problem, so we will get to the point:

It’s easy to forget a simple truth: When we use virtual messaging regularly, whether in the office or in our personal lives, the time and energy we spend sending and receiving bits of text is directly deducted from the time and energy we have left for connecting with our loved ones and colleagues in the real world. The changes the tech revolution brought with it have become so imperceptible and so deeply woven into the fabric of our daily lives as to escape our conscious awareness.

The mindset we slip into makes it difficult to remember a lot of important things. It makes us forget that, as Turkle concisely puts it, “Our friends have unscheduled needs.” We forget what it’s like to be alone. We forget what it’s like to intentionally disconnect and enjoy solitude. 

Kids are growing up uncomfortable with things like telephones. When pressed, they say that talking on the phone is too weird, that it might be awkward, and ultimately requires too much attention. They are growing up expecting less attention and closeness in their relationships, and their expectations are often self-fulfilling.

An article by Maggie Smith of Brittanica.com (back in 2009!) observed that:

Breadth, not depth, becomes the norm in a world of hyper-connectivity. In other words, your email inbox does more than just eat up your time each day. It plugs you into an ever-widening circle of contacts, navigated via thinner, faceless means of communication. You have less and less time to go deeply with others… and at the same time, this world of gadget-driven hyper-connectivity changes what it means to be present. Across our lifetimes, mutual focus is the launch point and bedrock of any social situation. When we give others half our attention or allow interruptions to pepper our time together, we undermine the chance for a true “meeting of minds.” Respect for the integrity of a moment is crucial for nurturing in-depth interactions.

Skimming, multitasking and speed all have a place in 21st-century life. But we can’t let go of deep focus, problem-solving and connection – the building blocks to wisdom and intimacy. The task before us – to spark a renaissance of attention – is monumental, and yet it’s as crucial as greening the planet or rebuilding our financial system. For we can only meet the challenges of our day by strengthening, not undermining, our powers of attention.

Distractibility and multitasking can do much to generate and amplify relationship problems (loss of trust, emergence of negative sentiment override, growth of distance between partners, and deterioration of emotional support) and create internal problems (insecurity, loss of self esteem, fear of isolation, and loss of emotional communication skills). In a relationship often conducted through virtual communication, you may find yourselves suddenly surrounded by the 4 Horsemen – who have crept unnoticed into the darkness that communication technology can’t help but keep us in. 
For these reasons, we will be concluding our series on the Digital Age with the following chapter. In the next few weeks, we will discuss changes in the development of children (both EQ and IQ) in this digital world, their difficulties in learning social skills, and the problem of instilling values (empathy, trust, responsibility, and loyalty) in our kids.

We will explore the development of a young person in cyberspace: the effects of experimental play afforded by anonymity, the construction and editing of self in a socially pressurized online landscape, and the dangers of developing anxieties, narcissism, and a fear of intimacy. In this, we will address the ways in which parents may unwittingly reinforce a culture that teaches our kids not to question the consequences of the tech revolution they are raised in: to accept them as inescapable, and consequently endure interpersonal insecurity, internal problems of self-confidence, and isolation. We often don’t realize how the Digital Age may be depriving our kids of learning the social skills required to problem solve offline. Face-to-face. We will leave you with some strategies for supporting your children as they grow up, and empowering them to meet challenges in the real world!

More in The Digital Age
The Digital Age: The Times, They Are A Changin’

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.