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Op-Ed

It turns out our tech gadgets aren’t as isolating as experts say

 

We are facing a worldwide health crisis, and you can help. You don’t need to enlist in the military or even sew homemade masks for healthcare workers (although the latter would certainly be appreciated).

No, you can help flatten the curve by doing one simple thing — staying home and texting your friends.

But isn’t communicating via technology a poor substitute for “real” interaction? For over a decade journalists and scholars have lamented the detrimental effects of smartphones and social media on human relationships.

Because of new forms of technology, we’re supposedly lonelier than ever before, less connected, and battling a wider array of psychological maladies.

But if new forms of technology are truly driving us apart, then why must governments issue legal edicts forcing people to stay at home and avoid socializing? In states such as New York and California, governors have issued shelter-in-place orders. Spain, Germany, and Italy are under lockdown.

Here in Washington state, citizens took to (wait for it) social media to demand shelter-in-place orders from Gov. Jay Inslee. He issued a stay-at-home order shortly thereafter.

The truth of the matter is that social media and smartphones never drove us away from one another. Rather, these tools highlighted the most fundamental need of all — to be connected.

Humans are driven by our need to communicate. We are social creatures, and we come to know ourselves and our world primarily through our interactions. Recent studies have shown that mobile phone use has about the same effect on mental health as eating potatoes.

As a professor and researcher of technology and communication, I teach a course on the social implications of technology. In one assignment I ask students to forego all communication technology use for a 24-hour period and document their experience.

Every semester I am struck by their observations. Students very rarely miss the technology itself. Rather, they miss each other. They use technology to connect with friends from afar and to coordinate in-person meetups.

As communication scholar Nancy Baym notes, we are not addicted to our phones, we are addicted to each other.

Moreover, there are physiological benefits to being with one another. Expressing affection helps us better deal with stress. Extensive research has documented the health benefits of expressing our emotions to others.

All of which make the novel coronavirus especially frightening. The virus thrives by taking advantage of our basic need to be close to one another. Each carrier of the virus infects between 1 and 4 other individuals, primarily those with whom they live.

This virus is especially insidious because it presents us with a double bind. To survive, we must stay away from one another. To thrive, we need each other.

So what are we to do? We are incredibly lucky to live in a time of worldwide, instantaneous connection. Stay home. Stare at your screens. Send messages of hope and support to the people you are closest to.

And remember that your “addiction” isn’t to your phone. It is to the humans on the other end of your texts.

Nicholas Brody is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound in Central Tacoma. Reach him by email at nbrody@pugetsound.edu

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