Disconnection in a Connected World

While waiting at a table in the ARC the other day, for the first time in a long time, I realized I hadn’t brought my laptop. Normally, I would appease the momentary boredom, as most do, by pulling out my phone and scrolling aimlessly. But for once, I set it down and just observed. As I watched the people around me, it was as if each and every person was operating in their own universe -- earbuds in, talking on the phone, faces turned towards laptops. I am not claiming to be the exception to this: I am often just as guilty. But as I looked around at the hundreds of people who sat just inches apart and yet seemed to exist on entirely separate planes, I couldn’t help but feel… lonely. Lonely, in the busiest area of the university.

Humans seek human connection. This is an inherent part of being human, the desire to bond with others in a way that feels meaningful and rewarding. We seek all types of relationships in all walks of life: home, school, our careers (Stages on a Friday night, perhaps?).

Twenty years ago, if humans felt unable to establish those connections, they were limited options. Sometimes that meant succumbing to the idea of solitude for a while, until the next opportunity presented itself. These days, however, we are presented with an almost overwhelming plethora of choice when we aren’t satisfied with the relationships we have formed. Technology has revolutionized the way in which we interact, communicate, and most of all, connect with others. But the burning question is: are we really more connected than we were twenty, thirty, forty years ago?

In a university setting, technology can be incredibly useful to placate homesickness and stay in touch with loved ones. Superficially speaking, we have a quick fix when faced with the faintest sting of loneliness or rejection: we post a picture, send a Snapchat, write a text or Facebook post. In the time it would have taken us to appear at a friend or family member’s doorstep, we have already received hundreds of replies validating, at the very least, our extrinsic worth in society. For some, this may be the confidence boost they need to go out and form those real human connections, but others may find it hollow and unsatisfying.

If we begin to resent the single life and the inconsistent, emotionally-taxing process of meeting someone in person, we can log onto Tinder or Bumble and in five minutes, vet more potential partners than we could physically meet in a day. This has expanded our romantic selection exponentially, and allowed us the opportunity to immediately veto those who do not meet our criteria without that awkward first date. But in a day and age where “ghosting” is acceptable and matches are based solely on outward appearance, are we really having more success? How can we guess who we will have chemistry with based on a few blurry pictures and an amusingly self-deprecating biography? Dating apps can promote box-checking compatibility, but they can’t change pheromones.  

Expressions such as “FOMO” and “highlight reel” are common vernacular these days, giving a name to our sense of longing when social media makes it appear as though everybody else is having a better time than we are. We don’t get to see the thousands of others in the same predicament, so instead of reaching out, we choose to retreat, to hide away so as not to expose ourselves as the one who isn’t participating. We have reached an interesting dichotomy: historically, we are the most connected we have ever been, yet loneliness seems to have evolved into an epidemic.

I asked the opinion of a number of postsecondary students regarding how their relationships have been positively or negatively affected by technology, and here are some responses: “Technology has definitely helped me stay in contact with my family while I am at school. Especially concerning my relatives that live in the United States, I can't call them or see them, so being able to email and Snapchat has really helped. My dad also likes to keep up old traditions such as texting me "impossible questions" every morning, which is something we used to love to talk about on our drives to school.” - Megan, Queen’s U ‘21

“I feel that we often use technology as a blanket when you're uncomfortable. This stops us from forming new relationships, whereas on the other hand, with relationships we have already formed, I feel with technology our relationships with them grow.” - Kate, Laurentian U

“When I was in first year in University, I was in England so technology helped me stay in touch with my family and friends. Some would say that it kept me from making new friends but I disagree. Technology does have its downfalls though. For instance in high school, whenever I had friends over they spent more time looking at their phones than paying attention to me. Needless to say I am not friends with them anymore.” - Emilie, Queen’s U

“I feel technology has benefited me when trying to find relative connections in my field. I also feel that it has it has a large negative impact on my productivity, as a source of distractions and causing me to lose focus. I still believe technology has more benefits than consequences. My capability to ignore those distractions and focus on what’s important makes me more productive.” - Trent, Laurentian U ‘19

“I think it's both a help and a hardship. It's much easier to stay connected with the speed of connection & the variety of methods through which you can connect. For example, I communicate with my long distance boyfriend through Instagram, Snapchat & text all in one day. The hardship is that you know what you are missing out on. I know when he is active & when he is not active & what he is doing without me which is something I could definitely live without. Being so connected makes the relationship in general easier, but brings up specific issues (mainly for me) relating to anxiety.” - Lindsay, Queen’s U ‘20

There is no doubt that this new wave of technology has its benefits and downfalls, and one thing is for sure: we are only on the cusp. With the thousands of ways it facilitates our daily life, I can only hope in the future we can learn to moderate how it influences a fundamental element of our humanity: staying connected with one another. Has technology made you feel more or less connected to the people around you?