One of my patients is a distinguished veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She witnessed a lot of combat-related deaths and injuries, as did her fiancé who was deployed in a different theater of war. Via smartphone texting, she kept in touch with him during their time abroad. To her this “virtual engagement” was not a distraction but a saving grace: an opportunity for her to disconnect from the trauma and pain all around her, and reconnect with something more human, something softer, the person she loved. However, for her fiancé, my patient had become less of a someone and more of a some-thing: an invisible, intangible entity inside his phone. With no physical presence to engage with on a regular basis, she became less and less material, as did his feelings for her. He began to grow more distant, and eventually he “ghosted” her via a text message. After a long, tender courtship, he cut off all contact, leaving her devastated. What can we learn from her experience?
What if I were to tell you there was an epidemic sweeping the country, preying upon our brain’s delicate chemical makeup to effortlessly addict everyone within its grasp and cause spikes in anxiety and other mental disorders among nearly all its victims? As if that weren’t enough, what if I were to tell you this same epidemic was wreaking havoc on our basic ability to form and maintain our relationships—not just with each other, but with ourselves? And what would you say if I told you that the responsible party here was not only perfectly legal, but a tool you might call absolutely essential to living your daily life—a tool sitting not five feet away from you right now, if not being cradled in the palm of your hand even as you read this?
I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but as a psychiatrist trained in addressing emotional pain, I do want to sound an alarm: Our relationship to our smartphones is fundamentally changing our relationships with one another.
In earlier Digital Downfalls blog posts, I discussed how an addiction to our devices is created, and the anxiety that arises from that addiction. I hope what you learned from those two posts was a basic understanding of the way our brains shift towards these devices—¬in other words, our interaction with our smartphones runs far deeper, both literally and metaphorically, than just a press of a button. In this post, I’d like to shift that narrative toward the real-world consequences of these internal chemical shifts. My fear is that this issue is so much more problematic than many of us realize. Just witness the example of my war hero patient above.
Here’s a fundamental truth about us humans: We need each other. We are relationship-based creatures, who evolved in no small part thanks to our ability to form communities, familial ties, friendships, and yes, partnerships. Tech has made it easier than ever to “connect”. But, as my patient’s sad story illustrates, the quality of that connection may not be what it seems. In fact, the very nature of communication in tech does not nourish or reward slow, deep connections that eventually evolve and grow into love or contentment. Instead, what we are most often seeking is constant gratification and reward: It’s not the content of the message, it’s the fact that there’s a message at all, lighting up our phone—and our brain’s chemical pathways of addiction.
What does it mean to mix the gratification of receiving a message with the complicated, messy process of developing a meaningful relationship? In practice, it means a lot of broken hearts. When two people maintain a purely virtual connection, all it takes to end things is a simple push of the button. And when you never have to see another person’s tears, or their sad stare as you tell them it’s over, or even hear their voice as they respond to a breakup, what you’re ultimately doing is refusing responsibility, and robbing both you and your partner of the chance to process an important life event together, to help begin the healing process.
Don’t let tech get in the way of taking responsibility in your life. Don’t communicate emotionally important messages via texting. Don’t hide behind the distancing enabled through text messaging. Find the courage to pick up the phone and actually call your loved one. Better still, if possible, wait until you can meet face-to-face to talk about matters of the heart. This is one way for us to more fully grow into functional, whole, human beings. To read more about the dangers posed by technology for our intimate relationships click here.