What’s Technology Doing to Your Relationships?

I just finished Day 2 of a three day symposium that I am attending for continuing education credits (36 hours of which is required for renewal of licensure as a psychotherapist in DC and CA). Today I will be writing about a presentation I attended this morning by Sherry Turkle, author of the recently released and widely discussed book titled “Alone Together,” subtitled “Why we expect more from technology and less from each other.” It’s an analysis of the impact that information technology has had on our lives as inter-relational beings.

Ms. Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., has been studying this topic for thirty years. Although she was initially optimistic about the impact that computers would have on our lives, she has become increasingly worried by trends that she has noticed and documented. Her chief concern is that the quality of interpersonal connection, particularly among young people, is deteriorating even as the quantity of the connections is increasing. In January 2010, for example, a Neilsen study revealed that the average teenager sends over 3000 text messages a month – over 100 a day!

What are some of the implications of this proliferation of electronic connection? She highlighted several:


The massive amount of e-mails, IMs and texts that many of us receive has started to create a level and type of anxiety never before associated with interpersonal communication. When one has dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of e-mails waiting to be read, and is being bombarded with text messages and IMs throughout the day it can turn communication with others into a task, or perhaps even a chore, rather than a pleasure. Additionally, there is an implied urgency to respond to IMs, tweets, and texts that many feel pressured by.


The perceived need to feel connected electronically is so strong that it significantly interferes with normal social discourse (husbands and wives may dine together but are texting or reading e-mails so are actually in their own worlds rather than being together; fathers who used to sit with their sons and watch football together, interacting all the time, now may be focused on their Blackberries. We may even wind up sleeping less: the majority of teens keep their cell phones on and nearby during the night so that they won’t miss anything.


The shift towards massive quantities of communication is virtually requiring that communication be significantly truncated. Tweets are limited to 140 characters (a couple of dozen words) and texting certainly doesn’t lend itself to lengthy dialogue.


Truncated communication makes discussion of complex issues or problems impossible, so conversation is being increasingly “dumbed down,” much as cable news has dumbed down exploration of topics that used to be treated in depth by the evening news.


Perhaps most significantly, electronic communication gives the illusion of increased connection. Twenty years ago how many people could say they had 500 friends (Facebook) or 250 business connections (LinkedIn)? Yet because communication is both more superficial and because it is so easy to regulate (“my cell phone was turned off so I didn’t see your text; the battery died; I lost my phone,”) interpersonal communication is subject to a great deal of control. This control tends to reduce the intimacy engendered by the more old-fashioned kind of person-to-person voice communication afforded by the telephone. As Turkle notes, “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes.” (p. 17).

A final point: because of the huge increase in electronic communications as well as the numerous additional opportunities afforded by computer technology (games, internet surfing, online shopping, etc.) there has been a immense increase in multi-tasking. Multi-tasking can be pleasurable, in that tiny bits of dopamine are released when we accomplish a task, thus the more tasks we accomplish the better we feel. However, study after study conclusively demonstrates that multi-tasking results in poorer concentration, productivity, and creativity. Too many of us turn to our cell phones or computers to distract us rather than sitting and thinking through our challenges. Being alone may be unpleasant, but if we don’t learn how to get more comfortable with aloneness we are likely to face significantly more loneliness.

Unless you are a complete technophobe, I strongly recommend that you read this book and closely examine the personal impact of your use of computer technology.