Visit any café, bar or restaurant, the chances are that you will find many young people crouched over on their phones. They will appear to be totally oblivious to their surroundings and to the person sitting across the table from them. Though they plan on spending some quality time with their loved ones, they end up spending that time in their digital worlds instead. It’s worth pondering — why do people even bother to meet each other, when the only thing they do on meeting is stare at their phones?
Over the past few years, it feels like the separation between our digital and physical worlds has blurred considerably. Our real-life personality and our digital representation of it seems to have merged into one. By friends, we mean our Facebook friends. By groups, we mean Whatsapp groups. By talking, we mean chatting. By listening, we mean nothing. Nobody listens on the social media. How can we? When we are busy liking, commenting, tweeting and reposting.
Let us give credit where it’s due. We live in a world where friends once are friends forever. We have heard stories from our parents about school and college friends with whom they have now lost touch. Not us. We will be able to preserve our friendships through our lifetimes. Thanks to the social networks, it has become much easier to keep in touch with those separated by physical distances. It has also brought families closer, through shared Whatsapp jokes and photos. Now we can share experiences, in spite of being miles apart. It just happens that those experiences are digital.
In spite of all its benefits, the connected world has not been without its pitfalls. The cost of giving attention to the person across that touchscreen is that you are unable to give attention to the person sitting next to you. A real-world conversation takes a lot more social effort than a two-line chat having cute emojis. On top of that, the digital conversations offer you a convenience that is unparalleled in the real world. These factors make the digital world feel much more interesting and deserving of our time than the person sitting next to us. Ultimately, we succumb to the temptation and bury ourselves in our smartphones. Though the immediate gratification feels extremely rewarding, the long-terms effects of digital over-indulgence can be extremely harmful.
There is a reason why we are seeing an epidemic of depression in youth and our devices have a role to play in that. In cases of psychological distress, the people whom you spend time with everyday act as a cushion. You are having lunch with a colleague. She seems a bit shaken. She says she is fine. You ask her what’s wrong. She shares her troubles. You support her. She feels better. Now what if, while this distressed friend is sitting across the table from you, you are browsing through Instagram. Chances are that you might fail to notice that she is troubled. If her distress makes her withdraw from the social networks too, she will be isolated and things might get worse. The attention that we give to our devices is the attention we take away from the ones next to us.
Therefore, as first-class digital citizens, we should be self-aware of the effect that our digital world is having on us and our relationships with those around us. It is a difficult task given the allure of that enchanting world that exists beyond that wall of glass. But it is the only way to ensure that the tools meant to serve us do not become our masters.
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