The Psychological Toll of Our Increasingly Online Lives

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Technology carries the promise to make our lives easier, but at what price? UNLV sociologist Simon Gottschalk explains his research in a new book.

“We have to critically evaluate the purpose of this growing acceleration, this normalizing of constant and instant communication," says Gottschalk. "If there are no rational or desirable goals, we should ask ourselves why we accept those conditions and what we are losing in the process.”

Want to book plane tickets? Order a pizza? Check college courses? Write a note to Aunt Sally? Chances are you’ll use a smartphone (or laptop or desktop or smartwatch or Amazon Echo) for that.

In an “always on” society — with mini computers in reach at all times capable of solving nearly any problem or desire with a tap, pinch, or click — it’s harder than ever to escape the ever-increasing role that computer technologies play in daily life.

But is this “new normal” quite so normal when it comes to human health?

In his new book, “The Terminal Self: Everyday Life in Hypermodern Times,” UNLV sociology professor Simon Gottschalk examines the social and psychological toll of humanity's increasingly online lives on work, education, family life, interactions, and the sense of self.

“In order to conduct everyday life in our society and accomplish most activities, we have to access a terminal. There is no choice,” Gottschalk said.

“We have started to normalize a state of permanent urgency and most of the time it’s not justified,” he said. “From a sociological perspective, since the self emerges out of the interactions with others, the fact that an increasing number of interactions are occurring at the terminal may spell the end of the self as we know it.”

According to Gottschalk, the constant intrusion of terminals, even with their conveniences, impacts daily life in distinct ways:

Health
Once upon a time, people expressed anger and emotions face-to-face by yelling or gesturing, or by writing and sending a letter in the mail. In today’s “always on” society, negativity on email and social media is nearly constant.

The problem? Being on the receiving end of constant anger, stress, or other negativity triggers toxic neurochemical reactions in the body, Gottschalk says.

Gottschalk acknowledges that people in certain professions need to remain on call outside of normal business hours, but not most people — and the stress surrounding expectations to work around the clock is troubling.

“Increasingly, offline and online behavior bleed into one another,” Gottschalk says. “I don’t think we’ve adjusted to that condition.”

Relationships
A convenience of terminals is the ability to tap a screen and demand answers to almost anything — math equations, movie options, the meaning of life — at a moment’s notice.

However, Gottschalk warns that the instant gratification associated with eliciting a machine’s response with every keystroke — sometimes offering an answer while the question’s still being typed — can lead to an unrealistic expectation for these desires to be tended to just as quickly in real life.

“It corrupts our interaction with people. We begin to feel entitled to have every one of our impulses gratified immediately,” he said. “The fact that technology is available on demand doesn’t mean that people are. No one can live like that.”

Empathy
Face-to-face interaction incorporates a number of non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and eye contact. Online there’s just one medium — language. “That really complicates communication,” says Gottschalk.

Gottschalk says that unlike the humanity experienced through face-to-face communication, empathy tends to disappear at the terminal, where it’s easier to quickly humiliate, ignore, or disgrace someone else.

Putting pen to paper usually involves taking time to reflect and make thoughts clear.

Loneliness
Online shopping and texting mean never having to interact face to face. And even group activities, such as attending a concert but watching it through a tiny phone screen while recording, can be marred by technology.

“Our capacity to broadcast every passing thought, desire, or emotion to hundreds of scattered individuals is unique in human history and human psychology, Gottschalk said, “but research shows that at no point in our history have so many people reported being lonely.”

Privacy
The internet was originally invented to exchange information quickly over long distances. However, Gottschalk believes it has gotten out of control.

Years ago, booking plane tickets, locating oneself on a map, or buying music were anonymous activities. Now, because these activities are conducted online, they leave traces that create a digital profile/shadow. As the saying goes, “on Google, you are what you click. On Facebook, you are what you like.”

Cookies, spyware, and hidden service terms can create a recipe for disaster when it comes to data privacy.

“If we can’t control this type of manipulation,” he said, “we better stop the machines and look at what we’re doing.”

Loss of Skills
Once upon a time, maps, calculators, cameras, and phones all had a specific storage place in one’s home and each required different operational skills or knowledge. Today, these devices combine in a single pocket-sized item.

Would today’s youth know what to do if lost on a dirt road without cell service and only a map to find their way home?

Gottschalk says there is evidence that dependence on terminals has caused skills to atrophy.

“The fewer skills we develop to accomplish everyday functions, the more we rely on the terminal. And the more we use the terminal, the less skilled we become. It’s a vicious cycle,” he says.

So, now what?

From more countries taking France and Germany’s lead to outlaw work-related emails on weekends to writing down our thoughts then sleeping on them before clicking ‘send’ on email or Twitter, Gottschalk suggests that society slows down and re-consider its sense of entitlement for constant and instant access to the terminals.

“We have to critically evaluate the purpose of this growing acceleration, this normalizing of constant and instant communication," says Gottschalk. "If there are no rational or desirable goals, we should ask ourselves why we accept those conditions and what we are losing in the process.”

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