By Sarah Myers
When I talk with my friends, one of the fears they mention most frequently is being alone. Our generation is not unique in having this fear; every generation has faced the uncertainty of leaving home and building a new life. Yet I think we may have more reason to worry than our parents and grandparents did. Technology is filling the time we could spend with friends and family members. At the same time, harmful notions of what it means to have a “good” relationship are undermining our ability to form meaningful connections.
I’ve written about the effects of technology on our lives before. Internet-based services, and specifically social media and streaming services, are consuming our time and, therefore, our lives. We spend hours each day glued to our phones, laptops, and tablets. We tell ourselves that this technology actually brings us closer together — that we can instantly communicate with far-flung friends and family and even meet new people from the other side of the world. This is often true. I certainly talk more with my parents than they did with my grandparents, and technology makes it a great deal easier to stay in touch with high school friends.
But that’s not the whole story. Technology also disincentivizes us from spending quality time with those close to us. We text instead of calling and call instead of meeting in person. We tell ourselves that liking someone’s photo on Instagram is good enough, instead of reaching out to them. Choosing to avoid social media only deepens the problem, as we miss invitations and news which friends assume we’ve seen.
It’s hard not to worry that these problems will only intensify after college. College offers a built-in community — we live with, attend classes with and participate in clubs with thousands of similar people. It’s difficult to envision how our social lives will develop without that foundation. The more time all of us spend on our phones, the less likely we are to go out with friends, join clubs or make a serious effort to meet new people. Instead, we meet people through work or pre-existing connections. The particularly bold among us might try Bumble’s friend-finding feature.
This is a self-reinforcing cycle. The more people retreat into technology, the harder it becomes to connect in the real world. The harder it becomes to connect in the real world, the more people retreat into technology.
This isn’t just technology’s fault, though. Our society encourages us to view relationships as a kind of zero-sum game, in which a “good” relationship is one where we put in less emotional effort, and are less vulnerable, than our partner. Characters in TV shows and movies who make an effort to make new friends are often mocked for their perceived desperation for companionship. The characters we are supposed to admire, meanwhile, keep themselves aloof while mysteriously attracting loyal followers. It is considered humiliating to care more about someone than they care about you. It is understandable to view relationships this way. All of us want to be cared for but would be hurt to find that someone cared less about us than we did them. But this is also incredibly unhealthy.
In international relations, we often study mercantilism, a dominant mode of thought in Europe from the 1400s to 1700s. Mercantilist states view trade as a zero-sum game. Instead of pursuing free trade policies and exploiting their competitive advantages, they create barriers to trade, build empires to procure cheap raw materials and then sell finished goods at inflated prices, prioritize trade surpluses and hoard precious metals and resources. These policies are built on the assumption that there are limited resources in the world and a state’s success can be measured by how much of those resources the state manages to collect.
Many people now seem to view interpersonal relationships the same way mercantilist states viewed trade. They think that, because someone else might gain more from the relationship than we do, the relationship is not worth pursuing. They view relationships as emotional transactions.
Technology certainly intensifies this mindset — text messages make it very clear when one person is doing more to keep a conversation going, and social media interactions quantify everyone’s affection. People today are not stockpiling friends or trying to get monopolies on group chats. But it’s not uncommon to hear college students claim that they make sure to reply to texts just a bit more slowly than their partner does. Social media users notice who’s liking and commenting on their posts and often base their own likes and comments on that. But technology is not the sole cause — this mindset is also the result of popular media’s belittling of friendly people and the natural human fear of isolation or humiliation.
This instinctual accounting — of who issues invitations more often, shares more about themselves or texts back more quickly — does not increase our happiness. Instead of focusing on building genuine connections, people worry about coming off as overeager or fume over perceived slights. People worry more and enjoy less, convincing themselves that they’re just trying to be treated well, even as they mistreat others.
Between unhealthy perceptions of relationships and technology, we seem to be trapped in a vicious cycle of isolation and detachment. There isn’t a particularly good way to fight the interlocking cycles of withdrawing into technology and viewing relationships as zero-sum, either. Individuals cannot reconfigure the structure of our collective social lives. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, or any group, who could. But I don’t particularly want to accept the current situation, much less an intensified version of it. So, for now, I’d like to urge everyone to reach out to a friend they haven’t heard from recently. There’s nothing to lose and, for all you know, they’ve been embarrassed to reach out first and stuck waiting for you to make the first move. At the very least, no one likes to eat alone.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu