When I graduated high school in 1980, my classmates and I did our high school senior trip to Disneyworld, “the Happiest Place on Earth”. In addition to the rides and the Disney characters, which by the way, always kind of scared me, I was captivated by an attraction that, to my best recollection was called “Tomorrowland”. In this zone there was a historical walk through a time museum of past to futuristic inventions that were speculated to be commonplace in our homes. This was well before the invention of Personal Computer. Heck I was still using pen and paper to write my essays and research was all done at the library. In this magical gallery as we walked through the invention time machine it displayed old technology transitioning to new futuristic technology. There was a display of a typical American family, mom, dad and two kids in their living room watching TV and a rotary dial telephone mounted on the wall. Flash forward into the next futuristic display and the parents, now obviously older, were talking to the kids through the television screen. My thought was Wow! Amazing! You could talk to someone in a different state and actually see them at the same time? Much to my surprise and twenty-three years later, enter Skype onto the technology scene. This actually allowed people to do exactly what had been predicted by Tomorrowland. While it has been a truly revolutionary creation, it is costing us in our mental and emotional health because humans are hard wired for real connection.
If we look at the impact that technology has had, it has in many ways made our lives easier. But in other ways, the opportunity for isolation due to technology is far greater than it has ever been. Today we are facing extremely high rates of suicide, addiction, anxiety and depression. Suicide rates across the US in 2016 were almost 45,000 and 28% of those deaths was due to substance misuse. Substance misuse contributes to mental health issues. This suicide rate has increased more than 30% since 1999 and, more than half of those people had no previously known mental health diagnosis. Why is this happening? Some people, including author Sherry Turkle, in her book, Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, asserts that technology is creating social isolation and that the connection that is experienced by those who use social networking is replacing human interactions. This is having a devasting effect on the Millennial and Gen Z. Turkle suggests that the use of smartphones and social media platforms is not a replacement for human connection but we are mistakenly making that so. Statistically speaking according to Kasasa, a financial and technology services company, 95% of American Gen Z have a smartphone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Social Anxiety Disorder affects almost 7% of the population and it starts impacting young teens around age 13.
Young adults of today spend a great deal of time on their smartphone, or social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat watching other people’s worlds go by and feeling like theirs is insignificant. Not only does this contribute to social isolation but it also has an impact on a persons’ social self-efficacy. The internet world is an artificial representation of who people are in their day to day lives. The instant that is captured and shared with smiling happy faces can be pretty demoralizing for the observer, especially when compared to our own mundane experience. Not only does it contribute to our social loneliness because we are watching others have fun but it stomps on our emotional well-being because we are alone and lacking in intimacy from others. I have fallen victim to it myself, watching others worlds going by on my phone while sitting at home doing homework. Everyone is out there having fun and I am home, alone, and at that moment, friendless.
The social media platforms are a culprit that allows people to present as a socialite and having fun but in truth, it is only for a brief moment in time. The actual reality is that often people post to feel better about themselves, but it only feeds the need of putting up a good front to preserve their self-presentational motivation or looking good to others. Social media is also a good place to hide. Behind the black mirror, nobody can see our ugly, heartbroken selves that we dare not present to the world. Self-Presentational Theory suggests that if we are concerned about being able to manage the images that others have of us, then social media is the ultimate tool of control. But it contributes to low self-efficacy because we are not engaged and connected and, it continues to perpetuate our social anxiety which further prevents us from reaching out and making real human connections.
In Canada, we have a telecommunications company, Telus, whose tag line is “The Future is Friendly”. I would suggest that the suicide, mental health and addictions statistics sing a different song. Online communication is keeping us socially isolated as a society behind our computers and providing us with an opportunity to not bring our whole and true selves to the equation. This perpetuates anxiety and fear about how people really see us and, further disconnects us from ourselves and others because we believe they won’t like who we really are. The truth is, technology has a valuable contribution to the world but, it is keeping us physically disconnected from one another. Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was novel and exciting back in 1980 but the unanticipated impact on actual connection has transformed the excitement to anxiety. There is a dark side to the lure of the internet and social media. It is called social isolation and it makes our current world not the happiest place on earth.
Alphabet soup: Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z explained. (2018, May 17). Retrieved February 10, 2019, from https://communityrising.kasasa.com/gen-x-gen-y-gen-z/
Skype. (2019, January 31). Retrieved February 10, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skype
Suicide rising across the US | VitalSigns | CDC. (2018, June 7). Retrieved February 10, 2019, from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/index.html
Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more form technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Facts & Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved February 10, 2019, from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics