How the rise of the automated lifestyle might threaten our ability to connect
From dating apps to meal delivery: Is digital convenience a win or a woe?
Cupcake ATMs. Automated messages from dating apps. Algorithm-curated movie recommendations and music playlists. And now self-serve pharmacies housed in vending machines. Here's the promo copy for said pharmacy: "Millennials allergic to human interaction can now get their allergy medications, as well as their doctor's prescriptions, dispensed via vending machines." Welcome to the world of convenience without all the human contact — or any human contact. It has people, and not just introverts, asking: Why talk when you can tap a button or text?
It turns out, choosing convenience over human connection could come at a cost in the long term. Limited social interaction and low-quality social ties have been linked to a range of health problems including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and impaired immune function. A 2015 study out of Brigham Young University even found a lack of social connections to be as great a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Social isolation is also a growing concern worldwide, particularly when it turns into loneliness. In Canada, where one in five people identify as lonely, "social prescribing" of activities such as yoga, fiddling and walking is being tested to help people avoid negative health outcomes and build a sense of community. Similar programs exist in Singapore, Australia, Finland and in the U.K., where a Minister of Loneliness was recently appointed to address the fact that 14 per cent of the country's population suffers from loneliness.
But could something as simple as chatting with the pharmacist or sharing a smile with the cashier at your neighbourhood grocery store really be that important for your health? According to David Moscovitch, psychology professor and executive director of the Centre for Mental Health Research and Treatment at the University of Waterloo, the recognition that comes from seeing a familiar face is a powerful neurological reward. "We feel a sense of pleasure, [an] emotional boost," he explains. "We also get a feeling of connection when we're face to face. As humans, we are designed to respond to others' faces, [to] get our needs met in fundamental ways. I'm not sure all those needs can be met over text or Twitter."
"It may not be that everyone that's 'allergic' to social interaction is anxious about [interacting]; it may be they find it so time consuming they avoid it in order to be more efficient," says Moscovitch. However, he goes on to say, "What we're finding in our research is, it's not the use of these … technologies to avoid people that's bad. It's the motivation that underlies their use. One can use social media to connect with others — or to avoid having to interact."
"Social interaction is a skill, unless you do it, you lose it," Moscovitch says. Relationship expert Natasha Sharma, founder of NKS Therapy in Toronto and author of The Kindness Journal, echoes this sentiment. "The social intelligence and fitness piece of our interactions requires practice. And practice comes from just doing it and engaging in it," she says.
"I have young people in my practice who are anxious when they are around people because they don't know what to say or are worried they are going to say the wrong thing," says Sharma. "They lack the understanding and the skill set of how to just be with people."
Sharma points to the arrival of texting as the beginning of a scarcity of skills that used to be commonplace: talking, listening, making eye contact, picking up on non-verbal cues. "I have many young clients who have grown up with technology as the means to communicate, and I can't believe the conversations they're having over text message," she says. "They're trying to resolve a major disagreement or conflict over text — and they live next door. All the places and spaces where we would exercise and let our social skills flourish in person have gone behind screens."
This isn't to say technology is all bad when it comes to relationships. Take dating apps, for example. "There is an element of stress associated with committing to having dinner with someone before you get a sense of their personality. Using online dating as a gradual entry into meeting someone in real life could be a good thing, as long as that's what it's used for," says Moscovitch, cautioning that people need to move beyond these initial first online steps, which are "designed to move people … to an in person meeting".
"The world around us may become increasingly robotic, but we are designed to be social, to form deeper, meaningful connections with a few people and to have friendly, warm interactions with our community," says Sharma.
Her best advice to form these important connections: See people and interact with them frequently. Spend long periods of time with them — hours, not minutes.