Human beings have evolved as the most intelligent and advanced species on the earth, due to the ability to socially collaborate. This has enabled us to develop unique skills in the animal kingdom – to communicate using multiple modes. For a long time, prehistoric species like Neanderthals communicated using grunts and gestures, more like modern day chimpanzees. Circa 3200 BCE, humans invented written language which enabled sharing of ideas and thoughts. This collaborative capability strengthened the race and you see the great race taking over the planet today! Imagine your next office meeting where members can only communicate using sign language or grunts! I know, who will send the minutes, right!
May be, you are thinking, collaboration is an over used term in offices today and all of us write this in our achievements during year end appraisals. But with proliferation of technology, over the last 25 years, is something that we need to be mindful of? In this post, I want to share some thoughts on some of the long term impact of the current lifestyle trends. When I say this, I am not recommending going back to stone age, instead I tend to believe myself to be a strong digital evangelist. Like any tool, the internet, digital and modern day lifestyle come with their own downside and it is simple behavioural changes that will keep us balanced.
ARE WE COCOONED
There have been simple small changes in our normal lifestyle over the last few years, that have created a wedge in our social capabilities. Eating together was a routine, which has now become an event – we plan eating together with family and go to a restaurant for it. And what people do in the restaurant with their phones is a different issue altogether. Do you remember the last time you have had a conversation with your mom about something general and trivial? Even within the family, interactions are becoming need based and transactional. Do you remember the time we used to generally chit-chat with friends about random things and at times fight whether Tendulkar is better or Dravid! Hey, the coffee machine gossip at office doesn’t count as a social interaction. When you met someone in a social gathering, how many times have you left searching for words after 2 minutes of initial interaction about traffic and weather? Oh yes, social interactions are becoming more or less synonymous to alcohol! You know, what ‘lets catchup’ means! Unfortunately, our children seem to be deprived of the joy of debates and discussions and some occasional fist fights with their friends! As a family we have cocooned ourselves into a shell and our children may not discover the joy of social interactions, and morbidly lack the same!
Adding to the woe is our nuclear family structures. I strongly believe grand parents provide a great home lesson in early social interactions. There used to be a time when summer vacation would mean visiting a cousin’s house. Nowadays we tend to read about these in booker prize winning literature! Even our family vacations are based on the ‘presentability’ on social media. You don’t believe? Try telling your friend that you are planning for a week long vacation to Tirupur! Actually, of late when you see a family on vacation, it is easy to mistake them to be a group of strangers from different age group who have jointly come on a group tour through Thomas Cook!
PHONE IS SMART, ARE WE?
We are all aware that one of the key skills that helps growth is being Street Smart! In simple deconstructed terms this is the ability to interact with strangers. Imagine the ecstatic happiness that your mom used to feel after saving 2/- after bargaining for almost 30 minutes with the street vendor. The point of the matter was not the saving of 2/- but the joy of negotiation. These are early lessons in business negotiations that some of us were exposed to as Children. Earlier Children were encouraged to go to a neighbourhood shop to buy stuff, by this they would learn budgeting, quality assessment, project management by completing a task and more importantly meeting and interacting with strangers. I remember as a child, I used to squeeze the budget and buy a toffee for myself during such visits. Today, in our zeal in teaching ‘stranger dangers’ we seem to be depriving our children of this ability of social manoeuvrability. Can this lead to inability of future adults to arrive at middle grounds? Some of the recent researches seem to indicate the same. If everyone wants “highway or myway” there wont be any way left for it to be high or my!
I NEED MY ELBOW ROOM
What do you do when an elevator stops with 8 strangers and room for you? Do you pass it on or get into it? Chances are that you chose to wait for the next lift. This is nothing to do with personal space or “elbow room” and is the growing intolerance towards strangers. This in my opinion is a micro change in our social behaviours which would manifest into larger issues later. Would you strike a conversation with a stranger in a train during current times? We have read about romanticised experience of authors who made friends on train journeys and reading that feels like a different time zone. By the way you, may still see people cutting vegetables or playing black jack in Mumbai suburban trains, probably because that’s the only place where they get a contiguous space of 3ft X 3ft! If I’m flying on a window seat, I try to be the earliest, even before the pilot. I dread the wrath of the middle and aisle passengers when I’m late and need to get to my window seat!
Talking about elevators, there are quite a few of us who take ominous pleasure in closing the elevator door when someone is rushing towards the same. Try keeping it open next time and smile at the person, you’d have made her day! It is quite a challenge to look at some stranger and smile in these public spaces and instead you’ll notice everyone looking their phone screens. And you have those anti-socials in these enclosed spaces who listen to yo-yo Honey Singh on full volume that you can hear the lyrics outside their headphone! May be the emptiness between their ear is causing the echo!
Restaurants are a different experience altogether. You’ll see each family member doing their own stuff on mobiles, may be they just happen to meet each other. I think there is a future business opportunity like Tinder – for getting instant families in restaurants.
THE ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA
Two of the recent inventions which are making matters worse are social media and video games. Not without a reason, has WHO (World Health Org) included excessive usage of these is under their ICD11 – International Classification of Diseases. The constant pressure of seeking peer endorsements and need to be visible all the time results in what is called the FOMO Syndrome – Fear of Missing Out. Just notice around you in any public place, it is common to see people constantly checking their screens. Some researches suggest that about 76% of people check their social media status at least 10 times, when out with friends.
You see many news reports about accidents while attempting to click a selfie or someone got cheated through social media. You see people with about 1000 friends online but unable to maintain deeper relationships in real life. This indeed has drawn attention of practicing researchers who have observed links to damage in social interaction skills. Continued excessive exposure to social media and video games would result in loss of skills to react to real problems in real life and to discuss and solve things with real people. Ok, the point is not that we should shun social media altogether, but it is important to maintain a balance in the usage of technology. While we all know the ill effects of other substance addictions, this is not well publicised yet. When you dig deeper you’ll come across researches tagging social media and gaming addictions in youth in line with addictions for drugs!
BUT WE NOTICE NO CHANGE AROUND US
I am sure some of these points sound like a cynical rant and you may have a question that when the entire world is going towards it could this impact at all? Next time when you are in a meeting look around you, how many are checking their phone or typing something on their laptop? This results in momentary lapse of concentration and hence the effectiveness of such meetings goes for a toss! So key skill is to keep your points short and crisp when in a meeting, however the most important skill is to keep these distractions away.
Some of the long term impacts of continued exposure to long social media and games that have been established by researches include ADHD, depression, social withdrawal/phobia, obsessive compulsive disorders, and anxiety. And some of the physiological impacts include sleeplessness, back pain, etc. If we are seeking specific impact on academic/professional space, excessive exposure results in loss of cognitive ability in the long term. The ability to take decisions under uncertainty is observed to go down and so does ability to cope with academic/professional failures. Studies have also proven that verbal and visual memories go down drastically on continued exposure. With excessive communication on messenger and whatsapp, emotions are simplified to emojies. Is this the skill that will provide our kids ability to succeed? What use in a communication if we are not able to use all senses – voice, tone, words, pitch and the emotions? May be this is the reason you see some of the leaders with this skill influence a large crowd more easily than ever before!
We have all learnt that the skill that is required in leadership is communication and people management among various other traits. With these long term impacts, where do you see leaders of tomorrow are headed? We should ask ourselves if this is part of evolution where our phone and TV are becoming smarter and the users are becoming dumber. Encourage your child to go out, interact with strangers, debate and discuss and more importantly, read. I feel it is in our hands now, how we are moulding our leaders of the future!