How Diluting Face-to-Face Contact Is Making Us Unhealthier, Unhappier
Facebook posts, reminding us that our cell phones draw us closer to those far away while distancing us from those close at hand, make the rounds ironically via social media. In an age where Facebook and Snapchat are the main means to stay abreast of our loved ones’ lives, connecting face-to-face, or even talking on the phone, seems plain old-fashioned.
And it’s not a good thing.
According to Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier, “Everybody gets into a funk sometimes. Does anybody wonder, ‘Maybe I haven’t had enough social contact?’ That’s the main reason I wrote the book, to ask why we aren’t making a big deal of this.” She writes about how spending time online rather than in person with people is leaving us feeling empty. According to her research, our face-to-face interactions have a direct correlation with our longevity and happiness. “Besides emotional support, friends, family members, and acquaintances provide pertinent information, such as referrals to doctors and advice about shared experiences. They also provide lifts to the clinic and deliveries of chicken-noodle soup—the kind of help that can only be offered in-person,” reads a Globe and Mail interview with Pinker.
While online friends don’t necessarily deliver soup, isn’t there plenty of information, slices of life, and advice being exchanged digitally?
That may be the case, but Facebook user Shayma Ansari of Chicago, Illinois, says, “‘Lol’ can never replace the gratifying sound of that unique laugh of that great friend who actually thinks you’re funny.” She continues, “A conversation filled with facial expressions and non-verbal responses with someone, face-to-face, provides a much deeper feeling of trust and friendship.” Social media, she feels, has actually eroded social skills. Haven’t we all abandoned a digital exchange or two before it ended, sometimes not even responding at all or maybe days later? Would we dare walk off while a friend was mid-sentence when in person? Ansari says, “Face-to-face you are forced to deal with someone’s immediate reactions to you, good or bad, which makes you a lot more aware of how you are coming off.”
Studies show that sharing our intimate thoughts is the glue between relationships. Peruse Facebook and you’ll see plenty of soul-sharing, from how your “friends” are feeling to what they ate for lunch. So why does social media leave folks feeling more alone, even when everything they say elicits some kind of response from at least a couple of people? What is it about in-person interactions that make them better for us? The paradox is that, offline, not everyone wants to hear about how your day has gone, let alone share your excitement at spotting an actual chicken crossing the road!
“I really do feel that when you care about another person’s reactions and their feelings, that is when you make that bond,” says Ansari. “It’s part of not feeling alone. Online, you can ignore what someone wrote at your will. There’s no bond there. Further, there’s nothing unique or special when everyone can react and respond in the same finite ways, i.e., ‘likes’, ‘pokes’, ‘shares’. It’s like just because celebrities receive fan-mail doesn’t mean they don’t feel lonely.”
Social media allows us to get lazy about physically reaching out. While adults are inadvertently sacrificing that sense of companionship and closeness that only in-person interactions achieve, dwindling face-to-face time is wiring our kids’ brains wrong.
Face-to-face time is intrinsic to healthy brain development. The brain becomes underdeveloped when so much of a child’s interactions aren’t in person, says Aliyah Banister, a licensed clinical therapist with ICNA Relief Chicago’s Muslim Family Services and Islamic Foundation School, Villa Park. She specializes in Islamic Psychology. “Kids are not born with social skills. They learn over time by watching others and by learning how to be a friend,” says Banister. “When you interact via a screen, the quality of the interaction is diluted. Even with emoji’s and emoticons, you miss the tone of voice and facial expressions. You aren’t learning to read someone and react accordingly. You don’t have the nonverbal social cues to regulate your reactions.”
Face-to-face time, besides beneficial in-and-of itself, is an antidote to the unchecked screen time many children have. “Dopamine is secreted when your brain encounters pleasure or something interesting,” Banister explains. “When you’re online, every time you’re bored with one thing, you can skip to the next. So over time, the brain is being rewired to seek that dopamine rush, to satiate a desire for constant stimulation. Developmentally, this is a problem for children. They are constantly looking for the next rush.” This creates unrealistic expectations of the world and life.
Listening to the teacher, reading textbooks, or doing homework doesn’t provide that concentrated dopamine rush you get when bouncing between games, videos, and texts. Consequently, students end up unable to focus. Their attention drifts to their phone and the internet, seeking that squirt of dopamine. With face-to-face time, the nature of interactions and dopamine release is more stable, says Banister.
Face-to-face time involves not only the sharing of memories but the making of new ones. Shared experiences join hearts. However, even within families, texting is replacing conversations. Dinner together as a family used to be a way to connect, but cellphones have encroached on this family tradition which itself is withering away under the onslaught of rushed meals and staggered meal times. Meals in front of a TV quell any discussion. These habits consistently leave moments for meaningful catching up face-to-face untouched.
“I treat a lot of children who are very anxious or sad,” says Banister. “One of my plans is not allowing technology for two weeks. We do that to assess the child to see what the underlying problem is. Then after their brain resets, it’s possible to add in some screen time. Without your phone or computer, you are more likely to engage in physical exercise or social face-to-face activities and notice the world around you. Kids should have normal interactions and acquire realistic expectations as to how ‘stimulating’ life should be so as to develop a better attention span.”
Those Water Coolers Do Wonders
Face-to-face benefits apply to workplace productivity, as well. According to Pinker, in the Globe and Mail article, “Four ways socializing can help you live a healthier life,” MIT researchers “found that workers at a bank call center were happier and (20 percent) more productive when they went on breaks at the same time” versus not. A simple yet effective means to employee retention and a competitive edge!
Naazish YarKhan has bylines in more than 50 media outlets including Chicago Tribune and Huffington Post.