It’s 11 pm the night before that horrendous deadline which has been hanging over you for weeks. You are tired, drained, and less than half of that 3000-word essay is actually written. You are firmly in what can affectionately be termed ‘the screwed zone’ and it is increasingly clear that this is going to be a very long night. Then your phone beeps: one new message. You cannot ignore it; it might be important. When it transpires that it is merely your flatmate in the next room informing you that they are also in ‘the screwed zone’, you know you should just put the phone down and carry on typing, but you cannot resist. You text back, informing them of how you are actually going to die and have no hope of finishing said essay.
Then, considering that you are already wasting time, you figure that you might as well check your email account. And the other email account. And Facebook. Now you’re in trouble. An hour later, you realise that you do not actually care whether or not that annoying girl you knew at school has changed her relationship status, and that you don’t even like the guy you are Facebook-chatting with.
By now it is clear: the interruptions and distractions of technology are endless. Our dependency on technology is ever-increasing to such an extent that it has been called an addiction. We are all too aware that our irresistible urges to obsessively check our phones, emails and Facebook are detrimental to our studies. Recent research from the University of Kent has now highlighted the way in which even small interruptions such as a flashing Blackberry or one-minute phone call can increase our reading time by up to 17 per cent. This means that if you hypothetically spent 20 hours over the course of the week ‘focussing’ on reading for an essay, you would waste an additional 204 minutes re-reading sections of the text because of these small technological distractions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t even account for Facebook and all its glorious opportunities for procrastination.
The statistics for Facebook usage are nothing short of incredible. According to the statistics, there are over 200 million active Facebook mobile users who contribute to the 500 million people that have logged in during the past month. Moreover, a report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association showed that people in the UK collectively spent 2.2 billion minutes browsing the social networking site in December alone. With such figures in mind, it seems social technology is nothing short of a national obsession. Moreover, these ‘addictions’, aside from their grievous effect our time-keeping intentions, can also have a significant impact on other areas of our lives. Research is consistently showing that, for better or for worse, our friendships, relationships, privacy and even our safety can be affected by our obsessive emailing, texting, BBM-ing, phoning, IM-ing, tweeting, blogging and especially Facebook-ing.
In some respects, social networking can be seen as good for our friendships and relationships. As students, we often live miles and miles away from our closest school or ‘home’ friends, and it would be nothing short of idiotic to say that it isn’t useful to have such a cheap and easy means of communication. Snail-mail seems to be a rare thing these days, despite the student enthusiasm for post that isn’t bills or bank statements. Texts, Facebook wall posts, threads and the odd phone or Skype call are now the way we do things. It’s called ‘social’ networking for a reason. Never has it been easier for us to keep in touch with old friends, stalk new acquaintances and spy on distant enemies. We can keep in contact with more people than ever, no matter where they are in the world and all for the minute price of an internet bill and some evil glares when you log on in the library. Group messages are simple; events can be organised and social lives managed all with a few clicks of the mouse. It definitely has its benefits.
However quick, easy and convenient such ‘social’ interaction might be, it can also be impersonal. Sending an instant message just does not compare with an actual conversation, whether this involves a phone-call or – wonders will never cease – a face-to-face catch up. Who can honestly say that a Facebook chat session, which is conducted whilst the half-hearted participants lazily scroll through the pictures from last week’s trip to the Hive, is as valuable a contribution to their social interactions as actually speaking? Plus, if you’re spending your life tapping away at a computer keyboard in perfunctory efforts to catch up with your nearest and dearest, the relationships that you could be developing in person may well suffer for it. As Jackie Ashley, a Guardian journalist, wrote in 2009: “You cannot have a full human relationship without being in the presence of another person”.
Furthermore, research suggests that having so many ‘virtual’ relationships can cause further social problems, with our relationships becoming increasingly superficial. Diana Palmieri, a philosophy instructor at Concordia University and the University of Western Ontario, claims that the issue here is not merely one of time consumption, but that “the ‘positive feedback’ we get from superficial online interaction may take away our desire or our perceived need for further, more intimate, real-life relationships.” She continues, “the need may very well be present, but it isn’t perceived or ‘felt’ right away because we seem to be getting all that we need in our superficial interactions”.
Partly due to the time constraints and partly because of our emotional capacity, the average person does not have the ability to sustain many particularly close relationships at any one time. So the idea of attempting to keep up with dozens, maybe even hundreds of ‘friends’ at once suggests that the relationships we have with people – perhaps including our ‘closer’ friends – do become shallower and less meaningful. If we see and share what we’ve been up to, comment on what’s going on and generally have an idea of peoples’ lives without so much as even speaking to them, can we genuinely expect this to constitute a real friendship? Surely, when you discover big events in your ‘closest’ friends’ lives because you saw it on Facebook, something has gone askew. Furthermore, experts have professed a belief that our obsessive use of social networking sites can lead to an increased sense of social isolation, especially amongst introverts or those who do not use the sites, as a sociological study by McMillan and Morrison argued.
Whether you love it or loathe it, in light of the popularity – and the addictiveness – of social networking and communications technology, things are not likely to be changing any time soon. Chances are that we will continue to check our emails, Facebook and text messages multiple times per day. We probably won’t stop turning up late to social engagements because we were instant messaging someone else, or switch off our phones to prevent interruptions when we meet friends for a catch up. We almost definitely won’t be able to resist that flashing red light on our Blackberries when we’re supposed to be finishing that essay. But we can be aware of our addiction, and make the effort to sustain our ‘real’ as well as ‘virtual’ relationships. Meanwhile, I will ignore the fact that since beginning writing this article, my phone has been defiantly bleeping at me, and I have checked Facebook more times than I care to admit.
[Originally published in The Student, March 2011)