It is now an uncontested fact that technology is pervasive throughout our lives. But how often do we assess its presence in our relationships, recognizing how, exactly, it has impacted the way we interact with those closest to us?
Historically, we are going where no human has gone before, hooked up to apps offering unprecedented exposure to the innermost thoughts and actions of others, as well as new avenues to spy on our loved ones, cheat, and cover the tracks.
A 2014 Nielsen survey found that the average American spends 11 hours on social media, and more than half of that time is spent looking at a smartphone or tablet.
Technology has put our relationships in beta, redefining how we communicate our desires and trust one another. Brought to you in partnership with Paramount’s Men, Women and Children, here are five unbelievable ways in which technology is changing the very fabric of our societies, revealing how little we know about the people we think we know – and how little we know ourselves.
1. Social media may literally change our genes.
The science of epigenetics has shown that our experiences may permanently, even heritably, transform our DNA. This means that things we feel, like trauma and loss, change the way future generations are wired. By this logic, can communication physically transform us?
“Disrupting technologies of communication – such as the alphabet, such as language – absolutely change the architecture of the brain,” says digital scholar and techno-optimist Jason Silva, host of the Shots of Awe web series. “We are designed by that which we have designed, including language, technology, and visual media.”
Today, we use applications like Instagram as “mental scaffolding” for our memories – and soon, predicts Silva, we will be able to fully immerse ourselves in the output of someone else’s dreamspace without the square confines of a handheld device. For better or worse, we either use these tools to offer our vision of the world in a certain place and time, or to stupefy our audience.
Warns Silva, “You can use these fragments to reconstruct, or deconstruct, who a person is, but you shouldn’t use them to pretend to know the entire person.”
2. Social media accelerates our relationships.
Benjamin Painter, 32, of Dallas, lost his ex-wife to a fantasy relationship she developed over Facebook’s Mafia Wars. He believes the behavior would have eventually manifested without a digital outlet.
“She started telling me that I was different, but I thought it was normal to go through life changes after graduation and marriage,” says Painter, who was then a recent college grad. “[Two months into the marriage], I walked into my home office and saw a chat window open on her Facebook page on the computer. ‘Who is this?’ I asked her. ‘Oh, it’s just Johnny*,’ she told me.”
The name began appearing constantly in his then-wife’s news feed and comments. Painter says he only stopped seeing it when his wife blocked him from seeing her Facebook account. When she asked him to move out of their shared apartment, Ben started attending therapy in hopes of healing their marriage.
Painter’s wife soon traveled to Seattle, Washington (a place near the setting of the Twilight series), and stayed with Johnny during her trip. They now have a child together.
“The child is a walking, talking thing that was born out of a situation that mostly occurred in cyberspace,” says Ben. “She never wanted to be uncomfortable or unhappy, and inhabited bubble worlds to sustain that. I am sure this part of her would have shown up eventually, but technology made the rift grow faster.”
On the other hand, Ben met his current girlfriend of two years on OKCupid, and was immediately struck by their common language. “I asked her out quickly because I needed to get us out of the internet and into the world.”
3. Online dating actually delays “IRL” meetings.
“Whatever dating site you use, you ‘meet’ someone and immediately start fantasizing about them, because it can be more fun than reality,” says Bea Arthur, a mental health counselor and founder of Pretty Padded Room, an online therapy website. “I see people delaying meeting in person for as long as possible, although we know better.”
We should know better because relationships start to become solid after about five dates, says the therapist, while the first meeting is simply an initial interaction. Expectation is the root of the most disappointment in online dating, Arthur says. Are we afraid to burst the bubble of an attractive online persona?
“People delay and accelerate the meeting up to extend or dispel the fantasy,” continues Arthur. “When we are single, there’s only our imagination of our next partner, but it’s very difficult to actually confront the variable of another person and their effect on you, so the transition can be difficult.”
Our fears and motives surrounding online dating stem from personal experience; for example, experienced daters may intuitively know to rule out a bad fit right away, while experienced, jaded daters may want to “drag out the dream a little longer.”
4. Technology mobilizes the LGBT community.
Tara*, 25, a writer from New York City, waited for years to break the cultural barriers her traditional family posed around coming out about her sexual orientation. Like 43 percent of LGBT young adults, she found enough comfort in a supportive online community to do it, gradually.
“When I was first questioning myself, I made an OkCupid profile saying ‘bisexual’, but I hid my face because I was terrified,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have met my ex-girlfriend, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it if I weren’t going online and looking for someone to talk to.”
Remarkably, half of LGBT youth say they are truly close to a supportive person they met online, compared to just 19 percent of straight youth, and 60 percent use social networking to find or create a community of similar people. Nearly three quarters of LGBT people have engaged in civic activity online by blogging or commenting about a cause or issue.
Tara is waiting to write an identifying essay about her experience, because she is not ready to face its permanence.
“If you’re gay, you don’t just come out once, you’re constantly coming out of the closet, but with the internet it’s this thing you can’t control,” she says. “The internet is a great place to find community, and find comforting places, but it’s permanent.”
5. Technology is changing the way we mourn.
When we die, we can will our belongings to family and friends. What about the trail of data, images, and comments we imprint online every day? Do they survive us?
“One interesting way in which technology affects us is in the appearance of virtual pages dedicated to people who have died,” says Christina Zampitella, a clinical psychologist and thanatologist (grief specialist). “It’s an opportunity for those who loved this person to memorialize them and have a continued bond.”
It works for the benefit of the community of people who survive the deceased, and is such an effective tool that Zampitella often encourages her grief patients to set up a Facebook page in the loved one’s memory.
“Some parents who lose a child keep their cell phones active in order to see how their child interacted with the world, and to hear their voice messages, because you forget people’s voices,” she said. This is called a linking object – something that physically connects you to another person.
“It cannot be bad or harmful, unless the person is in complicated grief and avoiding the reality of a loss,” she says. “Having a way of maintaining a bond to the person is very helpful. What better way of using technology?”