LLike most people, I want intimacy. But as an evolutionary psychologist, I consider intimacy a fundamental human need. Sharing feelings, hugs, intellectual conversations, sex – these intimate moments are often the touchstones of a rich human experience. However, millions of people worldwide are isolated and solecaunfortunately is lacking in the meaningful and diverse social experiences that help maintain emotional and physical health.
Young people spends most of their waking hours online, avoiding personal gatherings for online chats, games, and Netflix. And even those of us with socially rich networks sometimes yearn for flashes of intimacy, like hugs from friends or sex with lovers, in the midst of the stillness of our daily lives.
As modern life has grown more distant through technological innovation, our opportunities for deep, intimate moments have diminished. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend by banning or disrupting many types of friendly and professional activities. to touch and sending many of us deeper into our online worlds.
This left many of us hungry. We have entered an intimate famine.
How much you’ve been hit depends in part on your objective experience, and largely on your perspective. Which set of words best describes your last two years:
1. Close, connected, loved, embraced and full or
2. Remote, disconnected, lonely, exhausted and empty?
If you chose the second set, you are not alone. Although the pandemic may have accelerated our feelings of social deprivation, we were already on this course, looking at our phones as if they were holding the answer to our problems. And, ironically, maybe they do.
As I wrote the words you just read, I checked my Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds several times. Why? Simply put, I and 53% of adults around the world who use social media need to believe that using these platforms is worth the cost.
Simply put, my relationship with social media is … complicated.
My statement about my relationship with social media is bold: I’m actually in a relationship with my phone. With its lights, sounds and vibrations, my phone offers attention, and I answer. Just as I respond to others in my life who make these offers (e.g., my husband and children), I turn to it, pay attention to it, and seek to resolve the issue that prompted the alert.
My phone is probably the most demanding entity in my world. I have taught my students that responsibility is one of the crucial elements of parenting and one of the most important things you can do as a parent to nurture a child. That’s why with my responsibility to the demands of my phone, I also nurtured it. But it was not just responsibility that strengthened our relationship. I carefully wipe its screen to remove stains (social care). I carry it with me wherever I go in my wallet, hand or pocket (skin-to-screen link). I get nervous if I can’t find it (separation anxiety). We’re tied up, and I’m shocked.
This relationship has not gone unnoticed by others in my orbit. Together with family scientist Brandon McDaniel, I explored the ways in which technology interferes with dyad relationships through the small daily interruptions in our interactions, called techno-interference. Since 2016, McDaniel and I, along with other researchers around the world, have found some consistent trends.
Specifically, people sometimes choose to interact with their phones over the other human beings in their lives, and this can lead to conflict and jealousy in relationships, family and friendships. In turn, this conflict and jealousy relates to lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and it also compromises intimacy.
Unfortunately, this technological interference affects some of us almost every day. In our 2019 topic study, McDaniel and I used a daily study where we asked both members of a romantic couple to list the techno experience they had experienced and their feelings every day for 14 days.
The findings were striking. Most couples (72%) reported techno-interference in their interactions with their partner during the two weeks. More importantly, in the days when participants reported more tech talk, they also reported more technology conflict, less positive face-to-face interactions with their partner, and more negativity about their moods and feelings about their relationships.
Why might we feel so rejected when a partner or friend chooses to interact with a phone as opposed to us? According to the theory of symbolic interaction, our interactions with others are linked with messages, and those messages help us determine our role in that person’s life. When a person chooses to take care of their phone rather than us, especially when we try to engage them, it sends the symbol that the phone is more important than us. Even if this is only a momentary experience, it can feel rejected, registering as a relational cost.
Our decision to stay in a relationship involves constant assessment of the costs and benefits of that relationship. Basically, we keep track of pluses and minuses for our partners – and in order to stay invested and engaged, a balance must be struck.
In my relationship with my phone, the balance always tilts in its favor. Of course, there are costs: it’s my biggest distraction from my work, family and friends.
No matter where I am, when an email or text appears, I feel compelled to check it. I also fall into rabbit holes of a survey, which begins with reading a simple article on the concept of love by Fyodor Dostoevsky and ends two hours later with a reading of the definition of love by 20 different philosophers.
Thanks for the documentary The Social Dilemma and other recent comments on the technology industry, I now understand that these constraints are rooted in purposeful design. Although I understand why I fall prey, I still recognize myself as prey, and that leaves me dissatisfied.
From a larger, social point of view, telephone and technology use can also cause discontent. In the early 21st century, there has been a lot of media attention directed to the research of American psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues. Their studies have shown an increase in rates of depression and anxiety corresponding to increased rates of technology use among U.S. adolescents and young adults over the past decade.
The argument goes like this: technology helps us form relationships, of course. However, now everyone is sitting in their bedroom, on their phones and computers, and by connecting with others online, they are missing out on the face-to-face interactions that help keep us happy and feel socially connected. Even worse, going online and on social media makes us stressed, lonely, and depressed.
Acquiring social capital helps us feel good about ourselves in the way “I was able to make this friend / connection and that’s why I have to be good”. Recent studies with U.S. teens have shown that the more online social capital you have, the more likely you are to experience stress when exposed to online risk (e.g., information theft and explicit content). But this could be an “all eggs in one basket” phenomenon; social capital distributed across online and offline contexts would likely offer a more protective effect.
Tthrough our social networks, we collect information about ourselves. How much do we like it? Do others care about what we say? How do our lives compare to those of others? Suddenly we became the guards at the center of the panopticon.
As humans, we spend a lot of time thinking about what other people think. While this is not intended to be a controversial proposition, I’m sure some of you are saying to yourself, “No, I’m not doing that,” or “I don’t care what other people think.” This is understandable. Any opposition you may feel to this statement may come from well-meaning advisers who, in an effort to lead you away from self-criticism and anxiety emerging from others’ assessments, have assured you that what other people think of you doesn’t matter. .
It is absolutely normal to think (and worry) about what other people think. It is a sign that you are in tune with your social environment. And according to the social brain hypothesis, these kinds of complex social interactions are the reason we have bigger brains than other vertebrates. More than that, it’s a sign that you need (and care about) people and their feelings. You are connected, and attachment to others can help us withstand all kinds of storms.
That’s why I would never suggest giving up your smartphone or doing a phone detox. Instead, accept your attachment to your phone as it is: you cling to a lifeline that connects you to important people in your world.
For some, like many young adults I teach and research, the form of intimacy changes so much that the drops they receive through texts and social media are enough to sustain a relationship. For others, like me, in-person interactions where we are soaked in touch, and laughter, and nonverbal cues, may be what we want.
But for all of us, we need to find a balance, letting our daily technological drops supplement and facilitate deeper personal moments. And whether we’re texting our friends or meeting a loved one for dinner, it’s our desire to connect and our vulnerability once we get there that are the creations of an intimate life.
This is an edited excerpt from No Touch: How to Survive Intimate Hunger by Michelle Drouin, published by MIT Press