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This is Paul Hirsch

Paul Hirsch

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Social Media: You’re Doing It Wrong

We are eroding our personal relationships with our online habits, and most of us have no idea what we’re doing wrong!

At issue here is not the fact that mobile devices and social media exist; the problem is not the availability of life distractions. The issue involves shared experiences. I realized this a few days ago when my wife and I were having a most mundane shared experience – watching TV.

Amy and I are big football fans. We have the NFL Sunday Ticket package, and we watch the Browns (yes, I know…) and Steelers every weekend. Last Sunday, we were watching the Browns/Redskins game. I was yelling at the screen (Browns fans do that a lot) and I noticed that every time I reacted out loud – “Ooooh damn! Did you see that hit?” etc. – I wasn’t getting a response. Amy was on her phone – Pinterest, I think. I rewound a few times to show her what she missed, but eventually I stopped and just tuned in on my own.

Later that night we were watching a Daily Show episode from the previous week. I was poking through Facebook and I missed a couple punchlines. Amy had to backtrack so I could catch up on what I missed.

We refer to splitting our attention as “multitasking,” but that’s a lie. See, when a computer multitasks, it processes data from a few different apps/programs at the same time. It can do that because it has multiple “brains” (cores) and can simultaneously give full attention to more than one thing. We like to pretend we can do the same thing, but we can’t and we don’t.

Amy and I were sitting three feet from each other, but we may as well have been in different time zones. She couldn’t have a conversation with me about whether the Brown’s biggest problem is their inconsistent running game or squandered quarterback talent, and I was ill-equipped to have a conversation with her on some interesting political topics. Not only did we isolate each other instead of enjoying those programs together, we stunted our ability to have meaningful conversations about them later. Instead of talking about views and having interesting dialog, at best we could report on what the other one missed – a totally different depth of communication.

The scene in our living room that afternoon is probably a very typical one. Insert different characters (someone’s kids on their phones, friends getting together to watch a game, but playing on phones instead, etc.), but the scene is not unusual. We could fill each other in on what the other one missed, but the fact that we chose to miss it in the first place tells me it’s probably not going to be a riveting conversation. Besides, there’s a big difference between experiencing something yourself and hearing about it second-hand.

This type of isolation isn’t a problem in-and-of itself. The problem is that we already live much of our lives isolated from those closest to us. Most couples work in different places. Sometimes we spend time with different friends. We have different interests – books, hobbies, etc. In some cases, we must be separate (like when we’re at work). In other cases we choose to be separate (such as reading a book). This isn’t a bad thing.

The issue here is balance. Every time you respond to a text while you’re out at dinner, you’re telling your counterpart (spouse/partner/friend/sibling/whoever) that their company is not sufficient. Every time you drift into social media instead of watching that movie your counterpart wanted to share with you, or jump online “real quick” to see what you missed while playing a board game or decorating a Christmas tree or cooking a meal together or whatever activity you’re sharing, you’re not just saying “this activity isn’t sufficient to hold my attention,” you’re saying “sharing this experience with you isn’t good enough for me.”

This is a harsh non-verbal message to send to the person or people around you, and it’s fast becoming normal. We’re developing this fear to commit to the experience right in front of us. It’s not necessarily a fear of what’s taking place; it’s this irrational fear that if we disconnect long enough to immerse ourselves in real life we’re going to miss something important in the virtual world. As a result, we end up with a half-assed experience on both sides (and the virtual stuff is almost never as important as we think it will be).

The solution isn’t to give up one or the other. Like I said, the issue is balance. Our virtual social life isn’t meant to supplant reality; it’s meant to complement it. I’m guilty of isolating myself on occasion, but more often than not, if I pop online while I’m in the company of others, it’s to share something with the group or to look up something relevant to a conversation that’s taking place. Using technology to enhance the real world is much different from using it to separate yourself from it.

Consider invoking a policy where you only isolate yourself online in situations where you’re naturally isolated already – a quick work break, when you’re home alone, in the bathroom (laugh all your want – that’s me-time!) or “shared isolated time” when everyone agrees to divert their attention at the same time (i.e. you read your book while I check the news on FlipBook, or you take a nap while I play a game online).

Being in a relationship or having a family doesn’t mean that you must always be engaged with them. It means you must be willing to engage yourself fully when the time comes, regardless of whether you’re doing something exciting and adventurous or routine and mundane.

That’s living!

All told, Amy and I are really good at spending time together. We have our moments, but if one of us is feeling left out, we speak up and we’re right back on track. Try it yourself next time you’re feeling together-but-alone. Hopefully you’re not so far down the digital rabbit hole that you don’t even recognize it when it happens!