You need look no further than the people ignoring each other at the restaurant table next to you to see how drastically smartphones and social media have affected our in-person interactions in just a decade’s time. And it’s hard not to wonder how this detracts from our emotional intimacy with the people closest to us. Indeed, preliminary research paints a concerning picture: Excessive reliance on smartphones to facilitate interactions may end up making us lonelier in the process.
But swearing off your device altogether isn’t required to make meaningful improvements in your relationships. Technology has both positives and negatives, of course, and not all online behavior is created equal. What’s the key? To pay closer, more mindful attention to your digital habits. Which ones actually help you connect, and which ones drive you away from true closeness with the people you care about? Here are ways to use social media without letting it affect your relationships.
Notice how much time you spend clicking “like” on the social media posts of those you barely know, for instance, and compare it to the time you could spend having coffee with an old coworker you still miss, or sharing a phone call with the college friend who makes you laugh. Conduct a relationship audit: Who is getting most of your time? And are they deserving of it? It may be that you feel too “busy” to squeeze in a happy hour, lunch or book club with people whose company you enjoy, because instead you’re filling your time with superficial interactions online — interactions that are no more fulfilling or meaningful than scratching the itch of habit.
Use technology to your advantage
Technology can enhance in-person interactions, not detract from them. Sure, it feels great to text back and forth with a friend about your work drama when you are most stressed about it (a benefit!), but when you are supposed to be hearing about your partner’s day and are staring at your phone instead, you may be damaging the relationship in front of you. And yes, it is great that our friends can invite us to gatherings so easily now — no postage stamp or even phone call needed — but is that also making it too easy for us to flake out? Do you hide behind texting to constantly excuse your lateness or ditch plans at the last minute, eroding your relationships over time?
Technology can actually help us get together more in person, if we’re willing to use it that way — for example, by using automated calendars and poll apps to streamline making group plans. It’s easier than ever to find a way for multiple people to meet up, rather than taking two weeks to find the perfect date and time (or giving up altogether.) Neighborhood Listservs can help you connect with people down the street (or in your apartment building) who you wouldn’t have met otherwise. Meetup groups can help you find those who share your new hobbies. And video-chatting with a long-distance friend can be even better than a phone call (let alone a text!), as eye contact and body language make interactions all the more personal.
When you’re online, go heavy on activities that help you feel more truly connected, like writing personal messages rather than just clicking “like,” and seeking out contact with people you prioritize rather than just passively scrolling through whoever’s news just happens to show up in your feed. Be willing to show some vulnerability and spontaneity in your representation of yourself (the tenth take of that same selfie, or that eighth edit of your post, is probably getting a little bit far from representing the real you) so that you are better able to truly be known and understood. Otherwise, your interactions can start feeling like they’ve been edited beyond any semblance of humanity. And the people you value in your life need more than that to stay close to you, and for you to feel truly connected.
How do you stay mindful so that social media doesn’t affect your relationships? Tell us in the comments below!