“How can you recommend spending less time looking at screens? During the pandemic, my screens are all I have to connect with others.” These are things I hear from quite a few people when they learn that I write about how to regulate excessive screen use.
A life with more intentional screen time can reveal a fulfilling form of connection many of us have been without this last year. Could the next year be a worthwhile opportunity to truly unplug but still connect? Here are some reasons I believe real connection is beyond smartphones and video cameras.
To alleviate stress, connect
Despite the myriad promises to the contrary, texting or emailing rarely leads to the social connection we so desperately need to buffer the loneliness, anxiety, and trauma of the pandemic. A 2011 study led by Leslie Seltzer at the University of Wisconsin found that girls who were asked to perform math problems in front of strangers saw an increase in their stress levels; those same girls who then instant messaged with their mothers experienced no decrease in cortisol, a biomarker of stress, nor did they experience an increase in oxytocin, a neuropeptide associated with the warm feelings of closeness in a positive relationship.
However, when these girls interacted with their mothers in person or by phone after the stressful math performance, they did experience a reduction in cortisol and an increase in oxytocin. In other words, they felt less stressed and more connected with their mothers only by interacting face-to-face or on the phone, but not through electronic communication.
What lessons does this study hold for the rest of us after our stress levels have skyrocketed—not from working out math problems in front of strangers for half an hour but from sidestepping and wearing masks in front of strangers for more than 10 months? Stop texting and call. Defect from the heads-down tribe, lift up your forehead, and use your phone as . . . a phone. Stop messaging 10 people trivial chunks of information and call one person you care about and start connecting.
And then, as soon as conditions allow, leave your phone at home and spend extended periods with your family and friends—regularly. Why? Because we as human beings need physical contact and socioemotional support to not only survive but thrive in our lives.
Why screens are not satisfying
The one thing communicating by screens is missing is physical touch.
A study from 1999 found that baby rats whose mothers groom and lick them frequently actually develop a stronger immune system and grow up more resilient to stress. To see if these observations apply to humans, University of Virginia neuroscientist Jim Coan used the threat of electric shock while his subjects were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. You may be thinking, Okay, but do these findings hold up among humans?
To find out, Coan exposed study subjects, who were all married women, to the threat (and that’s only the threat) of electric shock while in an fMRI scanner. Some of the women held their husband’s hand, others held the hand of a male stranger (strictly platonic, husbands were assured), and others were subjected to this source of stress with no hand to hold at all.
When the women were holding their husband’s hand—and to a lesser extent a male stranger’s hand (but not when they had no hand to hold)—their neural systems that support behavioral and emotional responses to threat became less active. The higher the quality of the marriage, the more human touch reduced the woman’s stress-related response to threat.
What does this finding mean? Physical contact decreases the hypersensitivity to threat of our nervous system, especially when it’s the touch of someone we trust and with whom we have a healthy relationship. Yet even the touch of someone we have no relationship with at all can make a difference in reducing our physiological responses to threat. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we choose to get a massage, have our nails done, or hug our friends.
Why ‘being there’ for each other is key
Moreover, the socioemotional support individuals give to and receive from others is equally important. Research based on data from three longitudinal studies begun in the 1920s and ’30s (a period that included the Great Depression and World War II) examined why some individuals crumble subsequent to adversity while others sustain their well-being.
Both children and adults who received frequent social support by dint of being embedded in strong social networks were more likely to find meaning and purpose in the adversity they experienced than those who did not receive strong social support.
Social support is needed not only in adversity but also in good times. In a study by the University of California, Santa Barbara, of 79 dating couples, social psychologist Shelly Gable found that when it comes to both relationship well-being and dissolution, supportive responses to positive news bear more influence than supportive responses to negative news.
Hence, it seems that in sickness and in health, giving and receiving social support with the people we care about is not just a nice-to-have but a need-to-have. So to foster your own connections, get offline and start building those relationships, as safely as your can, away from screens.
Anthony Silard, PhD, is a leadership educator and the author of Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age.