Social Isolation

I do a lot of driving. One of my endearing habits is studying the faces of those heading in the opposite direction and those beside and behind me at intersections. Over the past couple years or so, I’ve noticed what I consider to be a disturbing trend. You have probably seen this phrase in the news lately: distracted drivers. Have you ever been behind someone at a stoplight and the light turns green but the car ahead remains motionless? I’ll give you three guesses what that driver is doing (and your first two guesses don’t count). Yes! S/he’s checking email or texting (or maybe even reading a book on Kindle!).

The point of my point here is not really about distracted drivers, although hardly a week goes by without some kind of news report about an odd traffic accident, where the car has mysteriously gone out of control and crashed. Sure, DUI can always be the culprit, or even “innocent” mechanical failures, but in my view, more and more of these crashes are caused by the distraction of drivers trying to stay in touch with friends via wireless communication while driving their cars.

What does distracted drivers have to do with college, you may be asking. Well, the epidemic is symptomatic of a much larger syndrome: social isolation. Those of you reading this who are headed to college is a few months will be entering a brand new and exciting social arena. However, are you willing to engage it fully or will you merely bounce off of it because so much of your time will be spent on your iPhones and laptops engaging other, off-campus souls from a distance?

To get a handle on your “Social Engagement Quotient” (SEP), perform a simple exercise. Start a log of how much time you spend each day looking either at your phone or with your hands on a keyboard of some kind. Keep track of it. (You may be shocked.) Then try to imagine how much that amount of time will expand when you are far away from those people with whom you actually spend physical time with now. Then estimate how much time you will have left during an average day at college for classes, homework, library research, writing papers, etc. Looks like you’ll be busy, eh?

Are you addicted to “distance” communication? Are you socially isolated? Let’s see what someone in the know has to say about that.

I got an interesting email from NewsAndExperts.com the other day. Part of its headline proclaims: Addiction Specialist Offers Tips for Overcoming Tech Disconnection & Anxiety. It makes some excellent points about social isolation due to technological addiction. Here are some highlights:

Social media sites like Facebook connect users with old friends, new acquaintances and everyone in between. However, studies are revealing an inverse link with online connections and deeper, face-to-face relationships.

Norwegian researchers recently developed a test for networking sites, called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, which likens inordinate amounts of time spent on the networking site to drug and alcohol abuse. The test measures how often people use the site, if they do so to forget their problems and how using the site negatively affects their personal and working lives.

Researchers found the following groups of people most at risk for Facebook addiction:

Women, who are more social than men,
Young people, who are more tech savvy than older people
Anxious or socially insecure people

“Social media, and the new emphasis on the importance of ‘multitasking,’ have helped drive a wedge between family members,” says psychologist Gregory L. Jantz, author of #Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology and Social Networking (www.drgregoryjantz.com).

Ironically, people become less social the more time they spend on social sites, and they tend to get less done while multitasking because they do not focus on completing one task at a time, he says.

“When people abuse drugs and alcohol, they are trying to feel better, yet they are worsening their situation. We’re finding this is also true for those who spend excessive amounts of time on social networking sites,” he says. “Perhaps the hardest hit from social media addiction is the family unit.”

Parents should monitor their own time online to ensure it’s not further limiting the already shrinking amount of time available with their children, Jantz says. And they need to safeguard their children by monitoring their time, as well. Jantz suggests these questions for parents to ask themselves in gauging their kids’ media usage:

• How much time do your kids spend with various forms of media? There are plenty of distractions from homework. Estimate how much time your child spends with the television, internet, social networking sites, cell phone, Blu-rays and game systems. The more time spent with media, the lower a child’s academic performance, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

• How much time do your kids spend with you versus online media? Remember, simply being in the same room isn’t necessarily interacting. The less the scales tip in favor of human-to-human interaction, the more likely there may be a problem.

• Do you know how each device works and how it can be used? Familiarity with your children’s gadgets gives you a better perspective of what their habits may be like.

• What are the consequences of their tech habits, and what should be changed? Make a list of the good and the bad consequences of your family’s technology use. After comparing the two lists, consider changes that can turn negatives into positives.

“Technology continues at its accelerating pace, and we are in unchartered territory,” Jantz says. “Increasingly, social networking infiltrates our personal lives, but we need to remember that it is created to serve us, and not the other way around.”

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So, are you among the addicted? Are you one of those no-go drivers at a stoplight? If so, think about what you may be missing this fall when you step onto that beautiful college campus with all those exciting opportunities and people. Will you be Facebooking in your room while others are cheering the team? If you suspect that you might be, then it’s time for some serious self-assessment. The social life you save may be your own.

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