A Primer: Understanding the Technology of Human Connection

Communication technologies have all been met with varieties of impact, excitement, and fear about how we engage with the world. Speculation of the effects of these tools is as old as invention itself. For instance, many people in the 19th century thought that the telephone and its disembodied communication would help them speak to the dead, while others with rheumatism would stand by the device thinking that electric impulses emanating from it would cure them. 

So what can we make of communication technology use and its impacts on our wellness, children, and society?

The March 4th Forum “The Technology of Human Connection” [Tickets Here] explores this question broadly by inviting a variety of discussants: 

  • Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary – psychologist, CUNY professor, and digital mental health expert
  • Jennifer Hanley – Facebook Safety Policy Manager 
  • Kristelle Lavallee – Content Strategist at Center on Media and Child Health, Boston Children’s Hospital
  • Larissa Mars – influencer and founder of the nextgen digital wellness movement, #HalftheStory

Kim Cavallo of lilspace will also have an installation set up to “unplug for a cause” during the event. 

This primer is designed to help touch on three key themes addressed in the forum: the impact technology has on our wellbeing and relationships, how we can design and use tech in mindful ways, and how structural inequality can impact the ways certain communities are able to choose or not choose to opt-out of technology use.

Tech’s Impact on Human Wellness and Relationships 

Parents are usually the first to worry about the negative externalities of technology on their children. As our speaker from the Center on Media and Public Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, Kristelle Lavallee writes, there have been public health conversations about communications technologies going back to the 1950’s hearings on if watching Gunsmoke caused juvenile delinquency. Since then, we’ve worried about children’s consumption of television, videogames, and now social media.  

There are a lot of fears out there that technology, especially social media or gaming, is causing a variety of mental illnesses or personality disorders–especially among children and teens. One year ago at Personal Democracy Forum, in the heavy midst of the post-election tech-lash, this author joked with Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, “Should I shelter my future children upstate and homeschool them in a tech-free home?” She was about to give a talk based on a research simulation she did on ABC on the impact of parental cellphone use around children. 

Luckily, she assured me there were other, less extreme and evidence-based options to raise children in a tech-infused world.

In Dr. Dennis-Tiwary’s New York Times Op-Ed, choc full of citations to excellent studies, she notes that research shows compulsive smartphone use is correlated with anxiety and depression, but “there is a lack of direct evidence that devices actually cause mental health problems.” Teens (and a lot of us!) live in times of great economic and social uncertainty, causing intense anxieties. Certain types of obsessive online use and gaming is a stress response to those pressures. However, the extent of the impact of these technologies will require ongoing research to understand. 

The impact on children and teens aside, many discuss the impact online dating has on their well-being and ability to find a mate. Dating apps have helped countless people find a spouse, a hook-up, or someone to explore their sexuality with. In fact, about 12% of Americans have found a long-term partner via online dating. However, the 90-minute daily average that many users spend swiping or clicking can have adverse effects. The “ghosting” (or not responding), rejection, and constant self-comparison has been shown to have adverse effects on mental health.  One study shows that users of dating apps have lower self-esteem and negative perceptions of their own body image compared to non-users. 

Finally, there have been thousands of articles and hundreds of books on the way social media and the Internet has impacted our body politic and elections. Good News! You can find many speeches on this at the Personal Democracy Forum’s YouTube page or sign up to receive Civicist to stay on top of that… 

Using Technology in a Safe and Mindful Way 

These consumer technologies, designed to keep us using them for our data, attention, or money, are here to stay. So how can we use them well and also for the forces of good? 

A variety of technology companies offer guides on how to better use their platforms. Facebook has a Safety Center with resources on everything from bullying, to eating disorders, to this author’s personal favorite, “The Baby Boomer’s Guide to Facebook.” 

Other apps have made finding help in mental health crises easier, such as Crisis Text Line, which has safely collected data to help mental health experts improve treatment and predict warning signs. The First Lady of New York Chirlane McCray has made ThriveNYC, which is prioritizing improving the city’s mental health system, which also offers online learning modules and resources for mental health and its practitioners. 

There has also been a huge proliferation of apps to help curb the use of technology for the sake of productivity and wellness. Currently a Firefox plug-in “Deprocrastination” is blocking this author’s use of Twitter and Facebook. SelfControl is another classic to help users avoid distracting websites.  

Movements to change social norms around technology usage also help. For instance, Larissa Mars’s #HalftheStory social media campaign organization encourages users to share the less-pretty parts of their lives, beyond the perfect Instagram post.   Calls to delete distracting apps or regularly unplug like the “Digital Sabbath,” “Digital Staycation,”  or the Jewish shabbat inspired National Day of Unplugging (which this Forum kicks off), have made these tech-breaks more socially acceptable. Lilspace, an installation to encourage users to “unplug for a cause” at conferences, raises money and awareness but also social encourages unplugging. (This Forum will have a lilspace installation!) 

Finally, there are apps for mindfulness such as Personal Zen which helps with stress relief (designed by Dr. Dennis-Tiwary), Headspace which offers meditations, and Aura which offers gratitude journaling, mood-tracking, and meditation. 

The Digital Divide Around Use, Access, and Unplugging

Unplugging can sometimes seem like an impossible luxury.  But the very choice to unplug is also a product of social inequality. 

Across America, the inequality of the “Digital Divide” impacts the equal connectivity, technical knowledge, terms of use, and surveillance of a variety of groups ranging from rural Americans, people of color, and poor communities. Some people might not have access to certain types of technology, others have their data collected nonconsensually in the classroom or by police, and others might have no choice to unplug because of economic or social pressures.  

In the age of information overload, awareness around how algorithms surveil, track, and impact our decision making is also a product of this digital divide. Not knowing or choosing how a variety of corporations, governments, and individuals collect information about us is also asymmetrical depending on race, class, geography, gender, and more. 

Ultimately, any conversation around unplugging or digital wellness should consider the structural differences experienced by a diverse array of communities and identities. We hope to do this on March 4th. 

Get your ticket here.