December is upon us again, and with it, the holiday season. It’s a time when many gather with friends and family, when many give and receive gifts, when sales of the latest smartphone, tablet, and other personal computing devices soar. We are a society obsessed with the convenience of having access to our personal online and entertainment experience right at our fingertips. But as our society (and our lives) become more saturated with these devices, is our “connected” culture creating a society of lonely people?
There’s an ad airing on television and internet broadcasts for a new Rogers offering—NHL GameCentre Live. The ad, featuring hockey legend Mark Messier, depicts a family of Canuck fans who use the new service to watch their team play on multiple devices in a variety of scenarios (something they could have only dreamed of prior to Rogers' $5.2-billion purchase of NHL broadcast rights back in November of last year).
The school-aged son is able to multitask at the library—streaming the Canucks game live on his computer while he apparently completes his schoolwork. The teenage daughter streams the game on her phone while out with friends. Mom and Dad stream the game on a tablet while out for dinner on their date night. And finally, the whole family ends up back on the couch at home, streaming the game on three separate devices as Messier touts, “A family that shares together, cheers together.”
The irony in this promo is palpable—Rogers is trying to sell a service's ability to bring people together through a medium which inherently encourages private consumption.
It’s nice that Rogers seems to understand the value of quality family time, but I’m not convinced another addition to the entertainment we can access through our devices is the best way to bring people together. As highlighted in this article and the video it features, our smartphone-obsessed culture is contributing to a society that’s “more connected, yet more alone.”
Loneliness—along with its detrimental effects to health, happiness, and society—is a growing concern. In the UK, the Guardian reported last July on the “loneliness epidemic among young adults” and in October published an article calling our time “the age of loneliness” and citing research that shows how “social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day ... twice as deadly as obesity.” In August, Maclean’s magazine published an article entitled “The end of neighbours” that showed a growing disconnect amongst neighbours in North America, especially in suburbia.
This is one of the societal issues I’m exploring here at Cardus*U. It’s an issue that resonates with me. I’ve experienced the immense value of community in my life—at school, camp, church, and in my neighbourhood growing up. And I’ve experienced how easy it can be to disconnect and isolate oneself, especially at home, with the use of technology.
Convenience and choice offered through innovations in media and technology are increasingly valued in our culture. Understandably so. Who doesn’t want greater convenience and more options? Yet as we seek the perceived value and satisfaction of these products and services, are we unintentionally, unknowingly fueling a social epidemic that is literally killing us?
This isn’t to say that technology and media are inherently bad for society. Our smartphones can be very helpful tools to connect with people, and media allows for shared experiences that can help build community. But more attention needs to be paid to questions like: how do we use technology and consume media responsibly? How do we encourage a focus amongst neighbours, friends, family, etc. on building community and social capital to mitigate this growing problem of loneliness?
The revolutions in technology and media consumption over the last half century are just a part of the dynamics at play in contributing to a growing trend of loneliness, but they are dynamics that we have the ability, on an individual or household level, to control more than most. This holiday season, I want to be intentional about spending time with friends and family. I want to be present and engaged when I do so—even if it’s uncomfortable or boring. I encourage you to do the same. Resist the temptation to disconnect from the people around you. Turn off your phone or leave it at the door. Give your attention to those around you: strangers, acquaintances, friends, family ... Whoever it is, we were created to be social and to be in community. It’s important to our individual well-being and to the health of our society as a whole that we don’t neglect that.