How Technology Erodes Our Emotional and Social Skills

It was a warm summer evening and I was having a beer with friends. I should have been happy to spend time with some of the closest people in my life but that evening I caught myself feeling restless and bored for some reason.

Upon exploring what was going on in my head I caught myself thinking: “Dude, finish that beer. Mindhunter Season 2 is out! Go home and turn it on!”

And I wasn’t the only one. Two other friends were eager to go home as well. I asked them why and after sharing why I was so fidgety they told me about their Apex Legends plans for the night.

My story seems to be typical of our times. Most of us in modern western society sit in front of a computer all day at work. During breaks or on commute we immediately reach into our pockets to pull out our smartphones and play some mindless game or get entertained by the news, only to get home and relax in front of the TV. I’m not pointing fingers. That’s how pretty much everyone in western society lives now.

You might think, “Who cares? What’s the problem with any of that?”

The problem is that while we are indulging in technology, we are slowly eroding our ability to be interested in normal everyday life situations.

As a result, we withdraw from social situations and consequently lose our emotional and social skills, which are essential for relating and talking to others.

And because we lack the skills to maneuver social situations, anxiety builds and we start avoiding human contact even more.

Consequently, we retreat into the digital world more and more and enter a vicious circle.

You might have noticed a few of the early signs of this downward spiral in your own life already:

  • Getting annoyed when the phone rings, even when it’s a friend.
  • Not knowing what to say during conversations.
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Unfounded depressive episodes.
  • Thinking it’s inappropriate to talk to strangers, especially attractive women.
  • Socialising feels boring. You can’t become genuinely interested in others anymore..
  • Feeling like something is blocking you from expressing your true thoughts and opinions verbally.
  • Social anxiety and the subsequent avoidance of social situations
  • Drifting off in your mind during conversations.
  • Not knowing what to talk about with your friends.
  • Being afraid of conflict.
  • Crazy multitasking, e.g. playing with your phone while watching TV.

What’s worst: This slow loss of emotional and social abilities hits us the hardest in our love lives. Inherently emotional and social, romantic relationships require you to share who you really are in a vulnerable manner. And when you are not able to do that, you often end up attracting toxic people or no one at all.

How did it get this far?

None of this is your fault, though. The whole tech industry is basically built on ever-increasing “convenience” – a clever way to rephrase avoidance of human contact.

We can buy everything we want online – no need to talk to a cashier. We go to the 24/7 open gym during off-hours and with our Bluetooth earphones in so we don’t get bothered by people.

busy gym times

We work remotely from anywhere in the world – usually sitting in a room by ourselves, feeling lonely instead of free. Even a customer service call ends up as a chat with a bot these days. And hey, soon we’ll have self-driving cars, high-quality VR and AR, as well as drone delivery.

We want toddlers to interact with us, to explore and make mistakes in order for them to develop the abilities necessary for dealing with life. Unfortunately, our society is working their asses off to take all of that away when we are adults. The more a company or product shields us from having to deal with other humans or discomfort, the more we like it.

But the story has another sinister plot.

Our brain wants to be stimulated. It craves novelty and uncertainty. That’s why some veterans and even war photographers report struggling to find back to normal everyday life because the thrill, danger, and comradery they experienced while they were in a war zone is gone all of a sudden. That’s why many want to go back.

The same happens when we take drugs, play video games, or binge TV shows. The stimulation our brain gets from these activities is just so much more intense than listening to what your friends did on the weekend. It’s just too f**ing slooooow…

And so we become desensitized to mental stimulation and “normal stuff” – like a nice meal with the family – just doesn’t do it for us anymore. While grandma tells us about her bad hip, we are thinking, “When can I finally go home and get high while watching random Youtube clips and listening to a true-crime podcast at the same time?”

So what’s the solution? Yoga? Meditation? Ice baths? Goji berries? No (although some of these can be helpful).

The unlikely solution

As a first step, we need to slowly reduce self-isolation. For example, instead of playing solo online games you could invite your friends over to play a multiplayer one screen game like FIFA together. Or instead of heading to the gym alone with your earphones in you could do spinning classes or join a sports team.

Since the stimulation our brain demands is so high, action sports like downhill mountain biking, rock climbing, or wakeboarding are a good replacement and will also get you in touch with other people.

The second step is digital detox. We need to develop some responsibility to stay clear of technology overuse in the same way we stay clear of getting drunk all the time.

Just like one beer isn’t bad, checking your phone a few times a day to make calls or respond to texts and emails isn’t bad. But just like 15 beers will make you a drunk, obsessively pulling out your phone the second you might encounter boredom will make you starve emotionally.

A few other (self-tested) digital detox ideas:

  • No blue light from screens within an hour of going to bed.
  • Not sleeping in the same room as your phone or at least putting it on airplane mode.
  • Turning off all non-essential notifications.
  • No more indulging in sensationalistic news, gossip, and endless political arguments.
  • Instead of letting the algorithms choose movies and shows for you to watch, make it a point to research what you really look forward to seeing and then only watch that.
  • Leaving your phone at home during quick trips like running down to grab a bagel.
  • Making reservations via phone, not an app.
  • Calling friends and family instead of texting them.
  • Looking at whether you seem to like a restaurant first and only then pulling up the reviews.
  • Only doing one thing at a time. No more crazy multitasking.
  • Navigating to a new place by only looking at the route at home and asking people for the way in case you get lost.

Convenience and habit must not turn us into anxiety-ridden lonely individuals who feel like they are blocked from human contact by an invisible wall inside of them (that’s how I felt for a long time). We must purposefully choose to sometimes say “no” to technology. Because even though it’s great that we have it, we must use it responsively or it will devour us.

By the way, that evening I was telling you about in the beginning ended with me and my friends staying and talking about why technology has such a strong grip over us, which was the source of inspiration for this post. I am glad I decided (against what my body craved) to put friends and real-life conversation over the on-demand digital world. It felt infinitely better than any TV-show episode I could have watched.