Transform relationships: Embrace real interactions over digital distractions

As a health care writer and subject matter expert in public health policy for the treatment of chronic pain and opioid addiction, I spend a lot of time online reading or writing. Nearing the age of 80, I have time for such occupations. In that context, I recently ran into a quite profound quotation on Facebook:

I lived when simply waiting was a large part of ordinary life: when we waited, gathered around a crackling radio, to hear the infinitely far-away voice of the king of England … I live now when we fuss if our computer can’t bring us everything we want instantly. We deny time.

We don’t want to do anything with it, we want to erase it, deny that it passes. What is time in cyberspace? And if you deny time, you deny space. After all, it’s a continuum—which separates us.

So we talk on a cell phone to people in Indiana while jogging on the beach without seeing the beach and gather on social media into huge separation-denying disembodied groups while ignoring the people around us.

I find this virtual existence weird and, as a way of life, absurd. This could be because I am eighty-four years old. It could also be because it is a weird, absurd way to live.

– Ursula K. LeGuin, interview by Heather Davis

To this quotation, I would add my own perspective. One of the reasons I write about as many subjects as I do is to share a sense of perspective concerning the times we live in. Ursula LeGuin’s insight in this interview is quite profound, as are some of her books. I believe she informs us meaningfully about the nature of mental health in an age of social media. There is convincing evidence that social media use has been linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts (whether as cause or effect is presently unclear to me). As I write so often in my health care advocacy, we must remember that correlation is not a cause.

However, I believe the observation is inescapable that we live in an age where we no longer truly read for depth or understanding, while standing beneath a virtual waterfall of information and misinformation. We observe reality at a distance rather than creating and living it actively. We are entertained rather than informed—much less moved deeply. Like television, the passive consumption of visual entertainment appears to negatively impact imagination and creative thinking abilities, especially in children.

There are at least a few potential answers to this diversion of our personal realities. These likely won’t be easy answers either for adults or for our kids.

I suggest that we need to “get out more” without the interruptions of our iPhones or texting friends at a distance or visiting social media. And our kids need to get out more and use their own imaginations more actively and more often rather than being entertained. For that to happen, many working adults will face severe challenges to their time management skills.

We need to teach our kids the art of “let’s pretend” and the salvation of walking on a beach or a wooded trail somewhere, hand in hand, with nothing other than talking and seeing what is around us to occupy our personal agendas. For us and our kids to do that, we may need to embrace a policy against which they will predictably rebel vociferously and that mass media advertisers will do their very best to sabotage and divert:

“Our dinner table and our home are an iPhone-prohibited zone, and television doesn’t exist here!” From here onward, we and our kids will spend more time engaged with each other and get more entertainment from reading books or telling stories. Work stays at work or is done at home only during work hours. Computer hours are limited. Adequate sleep and rest matter.

Truly being “with” each other matters. And to be with each other, we must limit social media involvement.

Richard A. Lawhern is a patient advocate.

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