Solitude and Empathy: Two Casualties of The Digital Age

technology addiction, treatment boulder, COIf you are the proud owner of a smartphone or tablet you may have heard rumors and rumblings about the supposed “dangers” of overindulging. You might have also noticed some changes in your behavior and those around you over the last 10 years. For example, social gatherings where everyone is on their phone, as well as the fallout of the text break up. Perhaps in the back of your mind you are somewhat concerned about these changes, however the pull of the bright little screen with it’s infinite possibilities just speaks a lot lauder, “I’m necessary and make you and your life better.” It’s quite persuasive. “I’ll worry about it later,” you think to yourself. Meanwhile, statistics show that you are checking your smartphone an average of 150 times a day for a total of nearly three hours of little screen time, according to the Meeker Report and New York Post; all of which are having a lasting impact on your brain, behavior, personality, and relationships.

As someone who works very closely with people specializing in counseling for behavioral addictions, and as the proud owner of a smartphone/laptop myself, I have witnessed firsthand some of these changes. I must admit, I am concerned, and from a psychological perspective there are some important things you should probably know about your device-centric lifestyle. I do apologize in advance to those attached to your phones and I don’t much like to be the bearer of bad news, however I do find it much easier to do so over the Internet, a phenomenon I will discuss shortly.

The Cost

Sherry Turkle, an MIT endowed professor studying the sociology of technology, was recently interviewed in Tech Insider about her investigations into how our ever increasing involvement with technology is affecting our relationships with ourselves (intrapersonal), and others (interpersonal). Turkle states very clearly that the two main casualties of our device-centric lifestyles are solitude and empathy. Let’s start with empathy.


It might make intuitive sense that relating via text message or email elicits less of an empathic response from both parties involved then an in person interaction. The Internet is full of cyberbullying and trolling generally devoid of empathy. However, you might be surprised to learn that relating through text-based technology also reduces your ability to be empathic in face-to-face interpersonal relationships. Turkle notes that a face-to-face apology is a place where we learn empathy, and “If you’re apologizing to me, I soften because I get to see that you’re genuinely upset — you get to see that I have compassion for you.” In other words, empathy is something we need to both train and use, something that happens when we are speaking face-to-face, and every time we decide to text an apology we are missing out on valuable empathy building. If at this point you are thinking “Eh, empathy is overrated,” you may have yet to be the recipient of a text break up. You may also be interested to know that, as it turns out,

empathy is a key ingredient in the ability to form lasting and healthy relationships, which is one very important part of overall happiness and life satisfaction.

Teen Technology maleUnfortunately, this phenomenon of stunted development has a disproportional impact on kids and teens because they have had less time to experience the process of face-to-face empathy building. Additionally, these findings suggest that reducing anonymity and increasing accountability on the web, as some purport as the solution to our empathy problem, will only go so far if in 20 years everyone using the Internet hasn’t spent time developing empathy in the first place. However, this is just the first and most obvious casualty of the digital age . . .

Solitude: Never Alone on Your Smartphone

If you asked random people if empathy is important, they would probably answer, “Yes” with varying degrees of emphasis. However, if you asked those same people how important solitude is, my guess is that you would get a range of answers from “Very” to “Not Really” depending on personality type. As an extroverted introvert I value my alone time quite a bit. However, I was slightly shocked and saddened to learn that alone time on my smartphone really doesn’t count.

griefSolitude is defined here as the capacity to be alone with yourself and whatever arises in that space, smartphone notifications not included, without any goal directed activities. According to Turkle’s findings, solitude is an essential human need as it provides the time and space for us to integrate our recent experiences into a larger sense of self as well as learn from those experiences.

Furthermore, when we are in solitude our default mode network (DMN), a network of brain regions associated with a state of wakeful rest, including daydreaming and rumination, becomes activated. The activation of the DMN is associated with important things such as the ability to emotionally regulate, self-awareness, and healing.

Solitude is also where we develop and nurture our relationship with ourselves, where we continue to learn about who we are. When we consistently allow technology to intrude, our relationship with ourselves suffers. But that’s not all, without sufficient amounts of time spent in solitude, building the capacity to be comfortable with ourselves, our interpersonal relationships suffer as well. Time spent self-reflecting provides valuable insights into ways one might be sabotaging their relationships, whether they are romantic, professional, or platonic, including checking texts at the dinner table during date night. Turkle believes that,

as a society we are quickly turning being alone into a problem to be solved by technology and that, “we use technology to solve it by giving us something on a screen to take our attention off ourselves.”

It may feel inconsequential at first. Maybe you are feeling lonely (different than being alone by the way), and your knee jerk reaction is to pull out your phone. However, over time Turkle warns that this can have drastic consequences on an interpersonal, intrapersonal, and societal level.

I’m Sufficiently Bummed Out, Now What?

addicted to technology, smartphone addiction, boulder, coDoes all this mean you should stop reading this article on your smartphone right now and throw it out the window? Well, that’s one solution. For others, you may want to conduct some less costly experiments. For example, you could commit to communicating anything with any depth/emotional content face-to-face first for a week. You might also want to try turning your phone to airplane mode after 9pm for a week and on silent during any face-to-face interactions for the next week. Additionally, you could do a weeklong experiment of giving yourself an hour a day of solitude where you take a total technology break. Reading on paper or an e-reader (in airplane mode) can be included but look to see if you are trying to escape your present state or learn more about it with what you are reading. Activities like journaling, meditating, and creative endeavors such making art and music are a great activities to engage in during solitude. However, you actually don’t have to do anything! You can just be and let things settle naturally. If an hour a day seems like too much, try 30 minutes. Trust me, it gets easier over time as you learn you can do, and perhaps enjoy, unplugged solitude.

Once you have done a few weekly experiments regarding self-imposed technology boundaries, it’s time to ask some important questions. Do you want to gather more data, use your findings to make some decisions about your relationship with technology, or do you want to go on a week long retreat out of internet range because you have found it is a nearly impossible task to limit your technology use? Whatever you discover I encourage you to take action.

For those of you who find yourselves struggling to even set experimental boundaries and goals, or you know someone who does (like your teenage son or daughter), I encourage you to reach out for professional support. A counselor, who understands the impact of technology on the brain, including the assessment and treatment of behavioral addictions, can help a great deal with examining the effects of technology use and helping you make new healthy decisions that will benefit you and everyone around you—unless  they are too busy staring at the little screen that is.

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