Going out to dinner a few weeks ago with my daughters and their families, I was treated to a now familiar sight in restaurants.
At a table near ours was a family of six apparently waiting to be served. All the children, from the teenagers to the younger ones, were glued to their cell phones, oblivious of their surroundings, while the father and the mother were talking to each other.
The older ones were probably texting their friends or were on social media, while the smaller siblings were playing their online games.
Almost instinctively, I reacted by reminding my daughters to tell their children to keep their cell phones out of sight throughout dinner.
The scene also reminded me of a satirical video on YouTube, showing different people totally engrossed with their cell phones while crossing a busy street, driving their car, playing with their kids, eating and doing other daily activities.
The video then segues to an imaginary organization called “Guiding Hands” that specializes in helping cell phone-fixated people, i.e., guiding a man by the arm as he crosses the street, sitting beside a woman driving her car and taking over the steering wheel while she texts—exaggerated perhaps, but not too far from the truth.
While the digital revolution has given rise to the age of instant global connectivity, it has also become a catalyst for social disconnection, polarization and alienation. Hopefully, these are only growing pains of the new communication paradigm, which does have unlimited potential.
Let me cite some instances of how this new connectivity has paradoxically disconnected people from the real world and, sadly, from themselves.
Many young people, while adept in navigating the complicated labyrinths of cyberspace, have lost many social and interpersonal skills in real life, and are more at home interacting with their much wider circle of “friends,” acquaintances and casual contacts inside their laptops and cellphones.
Craving for acceptance
Today, instead of seeking approval from people who truly care about them, they crave acceptance from a much wider audience in their online world. This can be stressful, and perceived failure can lead to alienation and depression, a growing worldwide problem.
In a recent Lifestyle article on suicide, the chair of the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation (whose advocacy is suicide prevention) was quoted as stating, “The Philippines used to be last in terms of depression incidence, but now we have become one of the fastest growing in the world at no. 3 or no. 4. Its biggest growth demographic is teenage depression, mostly due to social media, because we are one of the world’s most active users.”
But perhaps the biggest danger spawned by this era of ultra-connectivity is the loss, or worse, rejection of our true sense of self-identity.
Constantly immersed in social media, it is easy for people, especially those with low self-esteem, to start equating their self-worth with signals of approval (likes, positive comments, shares) they get on Facebook and social media. So they make sure they expose only the best version of themselves, and sometimes go even beyond that.
We had a househelp who was looking for a possible partner, preferably a foreigner. So she joined an online dating site.
When one of her foreign prospects came to the Philippines and contacted her from the five-star hotel he was staying in, she suddenly got cold feet. Without being uncharitable, my family strongly suspected that she had embellished her personal information, and perhaps even her photo. She probably regretted what she had done and did not meet with the man, who had traveled all the way to our country to meet her.
A sad story, but not unusual, considering the opportunities offered not only on dating platforms, but also on other online sites for jobs, schooling, hobbies, for people to present their true or fake selves in a digital world.
Let me end with this simple but telling example. Whenever an unusual spectacle or an important event is happening, people automatically pull out their cell phones to take photos or a video. In doing this, they forego the actual experience in favor of a digital record.
Whenever I see a school of dolphins gracefully leaping in the air, cutting through the water, I prefer to enjoy the spectacle, while some of my companions scramble for their cell phones, to capture at least part of the breathtaking show.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking photos and videos, but aren’t we missing something when we fail to experience something special directly with our senses instead of through the lens of a digital camera?
“The digital innovation that set out to connect people has slowly started to tear those people apart both from within and without.”—Abhijit Naskar, neuroscientist and author