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The Psychosocial Toll of Our Increasingly Online Lives

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There is a social and psychological toll of our increasingly online lives, says UNLV sociology professor Simon Gottschalk.

Want to book airfare? Order pizza? Check an online course? Message your aunt? Chances are you'll use a smartphone (or laptop or desktop or smartwatch or digital assistant).

In the "always on" society—where a mini computer in your pocket is capable of solving nearly any problem or desire with a tap, pinch, or click—it's difficult to avoid the ever-increasing role that computer technologies play in our lives.

But is this "new normal" quite so normal when it comes to your 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 our increasingly online lives on work, education, family life, interactions, our sense of self, and more.

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

"We have started to normalize a state of permanent urgency and most of the time it's not justified," he says. "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 all of their conveniences, impacts personal lives in several distinct ways:


Once upon a time, if two people were angry with each other, they had to express those emotions face-to-face by way of yelling or gesturing, or by writing and sending a letter in the mail.

But in today's "always on" society, individuals are constantly being bombarded with negativity on email and social media.

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

What's more, it's estimated that the average American worker spends 23 percent of the day just managing email. Gottschalk acknowledges that it makes sense for people in certain professions to remain on call outside of normal business hours, but not for most people—and the stress surrounding expectations to work around the clock can be wearing.

"Increasingly, offline and online behavior bleed into one another," Gottschalk says. "I don't think we've adjusted to that particular condition."


One of the conveniences of terminals is the ability to tap a screen and demand answers to almost anything—math equations, movie viewing 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 providing an answer before a question has finish being typed—can lead to unrealistically expecting others to attend to a person's desires just as quickly in real life.

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


Face-to-face interaction incorporates a number of non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, and eye contact, but online you're reduced to one medium—language. "That really complicates communication," Gottschalk says.

Citing the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Gottschalk says that only in face-to-face communication can a person experience the full humanity of another. Empathy tends to disappear at the terminal, where one can easily and quickly humiliate, ignore, or disgrace someone else.

Take the historic medium of letter-writing, for example. Putting pen to paper usually involves taking time to reflect, making thoughts clear, and practicing "role playing" (examining thoughts from the reader's point of view) with the expectation that a letter may be kept in a box and treasured for years to come.

"Email communication degrades all that," Gottschalk says.


Online shopping and texting reduces the need to interact with another human face to face. 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 says, "but research shows that at no point in our history have so many people reported being lonely."

One issue is that the online environment allows for invisibility and anonymity, Gottschalk says, which lends itself to antisocial behavior. Another is that while a terminal enables communication with whomever, whenever, from wherever, the communication it enables is limited and limiting.

"That makes it very difficult to develop an authentic relationship with somebody else online" he says. "So we communicate more but we've never felt so lonely."


The Internet was originally invented with the intent of exchanging information over long distances more quickly. However, Gottschalk believes it has escaped our control.

Years ago, booking plane tickets, locating oneself on a map, or buying music were anonymous activities that left no trace. Now, because we conduct these simple activities online, they inevitably 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." Algorithms figure out with increasing precision what a person is doing, where, for how long, what they want, how to get their attention, what makes them sad, and how to trigger their pleasure or anger points.

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

Gottschalk recounts the controversy surrounding a 2012 experiment in which Facebook showed nearly 700,000 randomly selected users sad or negative posts to test whether the users would in turn contaminate their networks with negative posts of their own. Facebook's hypothesis was verified, but the public was horrified to learn that they'd been subjected to an experiment without their knowledge or consent.

"If we can't control this type of manipulation," Gottschalk says, "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 their own specific storage place in one's home and each required different skills or knowledge to operate them. Today, all these devices are carried as a single item in your pocket allows a person to tap or pinch or click to perform widely different activities.

But would a person or young child know what to do if lost on a dirt road without cell service and only a map to find the way home?

Gottschalk says there is evidence that dependence on terminals has caused previous 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 thoughts then sleeping on them before clicking 'send' on email or Twitter, Gottschalk suggests that people slow down and re-consider the sense of entitlement for constant and instant access to the terminals that increasingly colonize lives.

Even the sociologist himself keeps his cell phone on mute at work and doesn't read professional emails outside of business hours. He compares sending work emails over the weekend to him knocking on your door at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night because he wants your immediate attention. Such an action violates time and space boundaries; it implies that one can impose his or her sense of urgency on you whenever he or she feels like it. It betrays a certain lack of consideration, and signals that one's immediate needs trump the right to be left alone.

"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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