At a local café yesterday the sign said: “No free Wi-Fi. Talk to each other like before the internet.” What? And be there just for the coffee and conversation? We are more connected today than ever before (Facebook, for example, has more than 1.28 billion active users), but experts warn that we are also lonelier and more disconnected in our unplugged lives: hence the launch of Social September in 2012. It encourages us all to “press pause in September — disconnect from our digital lives and reconnect with each other, and ourselves. The aim is to create spaces for face-to-face social connection, promoting positive mental health and wellbeing.”

Why we should do a digital detox: the problems with virtual reality

Engaging via online technology with friends and family members can help us to stay in touch, find out what is going on the world, and share important aspects of our lives with others. What could be bad about that? The answer, it seems, is in the knock-on effects of using it.

Hiding

Research from 1985 tells us that people then tended to have three confidants. Comparable data in 2010 found that the most common response was “zero confidants”. Jennifer Cline, a counsellor concerned about this decline, spoke to 55 young adults who all said they “preferred face-to-face (F2F) interactions”. Further inquiry, however, uncovered that those same 20-somethings felt vulnerable in F2F encounters because they could not control their responses. Phone calls also revealed too much. Many said they dealt with conflicts via texting, even if the person was physically present in the same room. Some acknowledged a lack of competence in F2F conversations, but being “out of practice” on these led them to “hide” in social media, creating a vicious cycle of even more social media use and thus even less sensed competence.?Children and teens alike have complained about their fathers’ inattention at sports events and parents’ lack of eye contact generally when they are glued to their phones.

More show, less give-and-take

Research into online relating has shown that, on social networking sites, users present idealised versions of their lives: their best photos, happiest moments, and most prestigious career achievements. Being able to strongly control self-presentation plus maintain many relationships shallowly invites narcissism (excessive self-love). Those putting up such posts are likely to suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, fearing that if people knew how they really are, they would reject the poster. For the viewer, the idealised presentation leads to upward social comparisons: that is, “His/her life is so much more successful than mine.” This is a sure-fire recipe for unhappiness!

Moreover, finding out about a Facebook “friend” by merely “stalking” their posts changes how intimacy is done. Rather than parts of a person’s life being revealed in a trusted relationship requiring vulnerability in the telling, and empathy in the receiving, someone can learn the same facts (made public) covertly. Gaining such information requires no commitment on the part of the “friend”. Maintaining relationships in this way requires no real giving of oneself.

Decreased awareness of others

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo notes that where there is a sense of increased anonymity, there is a tendency to diminish individuality, and thus responsibility for acting congruently with one’s personal standards. The result: people become less aware of others and say things online that they would never say in real life — such as inappropriate disclosures and aggressive comments — because in real life their behaviours would be associated with their identity.

But can we really disconnect?

Disconnecting could be desirable, but is it feasible to unplug from our online lives? Like coffee, alcohol, or staying up late, going online is a habit: one we cannot easily give up altogether. So how might we engage the spirit of Social September without going “cold turkey” off social media? Here are some tips for a digital detox (if not total rehab):

  1. Create “sacred space” around some activities, where NO online connecting is allowed: think family meals, parent-kid time, nature walks, and bedtime. Just enjoy what you are doing — and whom you’re doing it with!
  2. Don’t take your phone when you go out. Ok, the group might need one phone for emergencies, but does everyone really need one?
  3. Act like a kid: be spontaneous! Go biking, kayaking, rollerblading, or swimming.
  4. Schedule posts and batch your time; programs such as HootSuite and TweetDeck can help.
  5. Give yourself permission to walk away from, or even suspend, your social media accounts (make sure your friends know how to contact you).
  6. Go to a connectivity-free zone to recharge (the bush, a way-out farm, mountain retreat, etc.)
  7. There’s always “#latergram”. You can enjoy the experience now and tweet/post/share/blog about it later!
  8. Have fun connecting authentically!

The REACH program behind Social September

Social September was created to support REACH, a youth organisation established in 1994 to give Australian youth the opportunity to connect in F2F Reach programs with the purpose of enhancing participants’ self-esteem and sense of control over their lives. The cost to REACH for each participant is $75 (participants pay little or nothing). REACH raises the funds through Social September. Want to get involved? You can do Social September either in a personal way (the “disconnect” we have been talking about) or you can offer to sponsor a “re-connect” (F2F, of course) with friends to help raise funds. Register at: www.socialseptember.com.au.

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance Blog. AIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.