The psychological digital disconnect

Will the next wave of technological advances render in-person human connectivity irrelevant? Can all our needs be met virtually and does the digital world that we now inhabit run the risk of creating a generation of emotionally avoidant, detached, and blunted people?

By Shoba Sreenivasan and Linda E. Weinberger.

In 2002, the Pew Research Center used the phrase, “digital disconnect,” to describe the gap between internet savvy students and the then, not so-savvy school system that had not yet recognised the educational value of the internet. 

Another form of a digital disconnect may be a psychological one. The digital psychological disconnect; namely, that of diminished emotional awareness and connections, can emerge when a society interacts increasingly more with devices than directly with people. 

Some of the routes may be as follows:

  1. A digital community allows for blunt and truncated expression of one’s thoughts (e.g., text messages) and one’s emotions (e.g., emojis); or
  2. Its anonymity emboldens people to express very harsh opinions about others or their endeavours; or 
  3. It allows for instant cyberspace-available judgments about others that are widespread and difficult to delete; or
  4. A decrease of intimate and private expression of emotions regarding oneself and others.

If digital communication becomes the predominant way of interacting with others, we may risk losing the ability to “read” subtle facial expressions in communication, to recognise psychological boundaries, and to understand through seeing and experiencing how our communications impact others.

More profoundly, if digital communication becomes the main mode of relating, it may lead to rendering face-to-face interpersonal interactions alien and uncomfortable, and therefore avoided.

Historically, we can readily observe how technological innovations have impacted as well as shaped our social interactions. 

For example, it can be argued that television strongly influenced our ideas of family (often in an idealised form), became the “babysitter” and in many ways changed family dynamics (e.g., many families were more likely to watch a television family interacting in a direct and disclosing manner than actually engaging in such communication with their own family members).

While the digital age imbues our life with instantaneous and wide-ranging connectivity, it also creates pseudo-connectivity, where “friends” may number in the “thousands” yet, there may not be a single living, breathing person with whom there is a true emotional connection.

Human psychology is “hard-wired” toward a desire to fit in with others. Belonging remains critical to a sense of one’s well-being. Psychologically, that sense of “I don’t fit in” can be devastating.

When one feels disconnected it may lead to feeling “less than” others. It may engender a sense of alienation, lack of validation, and feeling judged and rejected.

 Or, it can result in rage (think of the violence committed by the alienated, isolated individual). Or, it may contribute to being risk-aversive, and result in avoiding others for fear of rejection or discomfort.

Interestingly, disconnection was observed even before the digital age. In the 1950s, theologian Paul Tillich, noted this paradox: as Americans were experiencing burgeoning prosperity, there was also a growing sense of detachment and questioning. 

Tillich labeled this “non-being,” or psychological emptiness experienced as a sense of being cut-off from others, from the creative forces around oneself, and of the connectivity to others. While Tillich identified the post-World War II period as the “age of anxiety,” in the 21st Century, there may be an even more profound disconnection.

Yet, it must be recognised that the digital revolution has had a positive impact for many in their ability to form interpersonal relationships.

 For example, the increasing popularity of computer dating sites has resulted in numerous matches leading to marriage and long-term intimate relationships. In addition, persons seeking others with similar beliefs or hobbies have formed close bonds through their internet connections. 

An isolated or home-bound person who may not have had the means to meet someone with similar interests, can now reach out and find like-minded people through chat rooms. Clearly, any activity taken to the extreme or used exclusively runs the risk of limiting a person’s potential to develop other channels and opportunities for emotional connectedness.

The critical issue to consider is whether the next wave of technological advances will render in-person human connectivity irrelevant. Can all our needs be met virtually? Does the digital world that we now inhabit run the risk of creating a generation of emotionally avoidant, detached, and blunted people? Or, perhaps overly self-focused individuals who lack empathy for others; i.e., a society, composed at best of misfits and at worst of psychopaths? 

Some people may dismiss these concerns attributing them to technophobic fear-mongers. But that misses the point of the questioning – to be mindful of what we lose when we unthinkingly embrace technology. 

Positive emotional and physical connections to people lead to empathy, which is a profound dimension of the human experience. It is what promotes kindness, concern, and altruism; it feeds the human spirit and it is something we don’t want to lose.  


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