The emotional price we're paying for being always online

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The negative side effects of being connected all the time
Technology has reached a level our grandparents couldn’t have even imagined when they were young. Computers in our pockets, instant communication with people on the other side of the world, access to unimaginable amounts of information at our fingertips or just a voice query away, all of those are things we’re taking for granted. We’re so used to them it’s getting hard for us to imagine a world without any of that.

The benefits of technology are unquestionable, but there are two sides to every coin. There are multiple negative consequences that come out of using our gadgets daily: from health concerns over their various emissions to the way they’ve affected our society as a whole.

But there’s also a more subtle drawback, creeping like a shadow in the background of our minds. Our intimate connection with our phones means we’re also accessible by everyone that has our contact information, whether that’s a phone number or a social network profile. And that comes with certain expectations we can’t always easily meet. From a simple “hello” we just can’t answer at the moment to after-hours demands from our boss we wish we haven’t seen, our handheld link to the world brings a hefty dose of stress we’re so used to by now we often don’t even realize exists.

Having a phone means you’re available, period

We all have our own distinct way we use our phones and that’s especially true for the way we allow others to get our attention. What notification settings we use, how loud our ringer is, how our phones vibrate and their LED lights blink, what’s shown on their always-on displays — there are many ways to personalize a phone’s ability to communicate with you about incoming transmissions.

But because we only see our side of the dance that is establishing a long-distance communication channel (e.g. texting), we often subconsciously assume that others have similar, if not the same, approach to it. If you’re quick to reply to messages, you expect others to do the same; if you’re available during weird hours, you’re more likely to reach out to people during those hours as well. It doesn’t help that these days, it’s pretty much expected that everyone is an arm's length away from their phones at all time, even during trips to the bathroom and — unfortunately — while driving as well.

The deep integration of smartphones into our lives has also made us open for access for others at all time, whether we like it or not. But the same goes for the people we want to reach out to. The connections we make through our devices go both ways, but when we initiate a conversation, we go in blindly and we often assume that the other side is ready to reciprocate. But that's not always the case, and the dissonance between our expectations and reality can be the cause of negative emotions. 

Imagine sending a funny meme to someone you haven’t talked to in a while because it reminded you of them. But instead of LOL or a laughing emoji, you get a response that they just got fired and they’re not really in the mood. Of course, you feel like a total jerk, but is it really your fault? There was no way for you to know unless you asked in advance, but can you really begin every random conversation with a short query about the other person’s day-to-day life? Probably, if you want to make the effort, but the current communication etiquette is mostly stripped off anything “extra”. What should have been a lighthearted exchange became an experience both parties would rather forget. Worst of all, that negative impression you accidentally made can become a permanent stain on your relationship with that person, since their emotional response has already left its mark, even if they forgive you after their rational side takes over.

And then there are the times when you don’t get a response...

The “Seen.” curse

Sometimes, getting no answer is worse than getting an answer you don’t like. That’s especially true when you know your message has been seen. And while for the most part, the so-called read receipts are a helpful tool for online conversations, they can cause negative emotions as well.

For most people, it’s natural to assume that the lack of response simply means the other person is busy right now and will get back to you later, but for others, that’s a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Your boss is not happy with the decision you made at work and is waiting to get back to the office to call you in for a meeting. Your wife is mad at you for something you did earlier although you have no idea what that might be. For a mind that’s quick to go to a dark place, the quietness after a message has been seen can be a torture. 

At some point in our lives, we’ve all had to deal with a person that’s made quick assumptions about our lack of response and forced us to explain our unacceptable behavior. And many have probably experienced that same anxiety themselves in one form or another. A full-on emotional roller coaster powered by a tiny mark on a messaging app.

At least back when “snail mail” was the only form of written correspondence, the mailman didn’t come by your house a week later to tell you that the recipient had read your letter but didn’t feel like writing back. Or you could have always comforted yourself that the lack of a reply is because your homing pigeon was killed by a hawk along the way.

But not today! We now have so much information about everything that’s going on that it’s sometimes too much to handle. Of course, there are ways to negate that experience: incognito modes, disabling read receipts all together, and various other options depending on the app you’re using. But that’s not my point...

A new dimension of peer pressure

We all want to be a good friend, a good family member, a good person altogether. However, our constant connection to everyone we know puts us in a weird spot. On one hand, we want to do things according to our own desires: socialize when we feel the need, relax when we’re tired, and so on. But on another, we have to comply with certain expectations our close ones have if we want to keep a good relationship with them. Being part of multiple social networks means your time is not necessarily only yours, even if you’re out hiking somewhere in the wilderness with not a soul in sight. People reach out to you from all directions, and every time they do, you’re faced with a dilemma: be selfish and get to them at your own leisure or interrupt whatever you’re doing to answer the call (or rather, the text). For some, that’s a pretty easy choice to make: just let them wait. But others feel obligated by social norms and their own personality to respond as soon as possible. And while a simple switch to airplane mode or turning off the phone altogether might sound like a quick and easy solution, it sparks a whole new set of conflicts.

As a result, instead of feeling the freedom technology gives us, we feel cornered by the very device meant to make our lives easier. The same pressure is what often forces people that are hesitant to embrace smartphones to finally get one. The global communication shift towards messaging apps and social networks means you either have to join or be left out and possibly even lose real-life friends because of it. And once you’re part of this world, you have to deal with all the complications that come with it, from the situations described above to privacy concerns and even basic things like worrying about keeping your device intact.

Some of us are lucky enough to know the world before smartphones became the status quo, but there are already generations of younger people that grew up smartphones in hand. Their destiny is predetermined: their lives documented in high-resolution since birth and their friends more often names in a group chat rather than real-life companions.

At least we still have the ability to separate ourselves from our phones (although some seem to forget that), one day we might not have that luxury.
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