Advice: Outside the Box

outside-the-boxDear Dr. Fred:

My partner and I have a dilemma we hope you can help us with, as its threatening what was once a wonderful friendship.

Our best friends are a couple I’ll call Bob and Jim here. We’ve known these guys for years and have travelled all over the world with them, with nex’er a tense moment between us . . . at least not until they got smart phones and tablets.

We get together with these guys several times a month, sometimes even staying over at each other’s houses if we’ve had a late night and have done some drinking. Some time ago we noticed that both Bob and Jim had fallen into the habit of picking up their phones in the middle of what we considered to be a perfectly enjoyable conversation, and scrolling through Facebook or their e-mails. Naturally, the conversation with them died so my partner and I just talked with each other as if they» weren’t even there; eventually they would “come to,” and rejoin the dialogue.

Last Summer, we took a tour of the American Southwest with them, through some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world, and you can guess how they spent the trip — sitting in the back seat of the car with their noses stuck in their phones or tablets.

They were even on Facebook at a scenic overlook at the Grand Canyon! Preferring to avoid a conflict, we didn’t confront the behavior beyond making a sarcastic remark or two like, “So, how’s the view on your phones there, guys?”

Before we were mildly hurt and irritated by’ their behavior, but this trip was a tipping point. By the time we got home, we were totally over it with them. I guess we’re partly to blame for being too passive, but who wants to “manage” their friends’ antisocial behavior during a vacation?

Besides, it’s started to feel to us like something kind of weird or even unhealthy is going on with these guys — almost like they’re hooked. They get this kind of glassy-eyed, slack-jawed look on their faces and they punch the keys almost robotically, like a gambling addict playing slot machines in a casino. We’re no psychologists, but it certainly doesn’t seem normal to us.

What’s your opinion? Do we have reason to be concerned about our friends’ behavior, and if so what should we do about it? At the very least, we don’t much want to socialize with them anymore, which saddens us greatly.

Signed us,

Ticked Off By Technology

Dear Ticked Off:

You’ve just presented one of the most pervasive social quandaries of our era… what to do about the intrusion of hand-held technology in our daily human interactions. Beyond identifying a frustrating and rude behavior, you’ve also touched on some important questions about possible pathological aspects of it.

Recent neurological research is beginning to produce some alarming findings about the impact of constant technology exposure on the brain, particularly on child or adolescent brains which are still developing. The negative effects aren’t just limited to the brain, however. Overuse of such technology is also blamed for the rising rates of obesity, depression, neck or back pain and behavior problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder, which lowers school performance and social functioning in children.

In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, author Robert Louv identifies a problem he calls “Nature Deficit Disorder,” in which children who don’t go outside enough lose their capacity to relate to their environment, even indoors. He theorizes children have an innate need to spend time outdoors interacting with nature in order to develop important neurological and social skills.

Based on your experiences with your friends, it appears the adverse impact of this technology isn’t solely on children or adolescents, but adults as well. For years now, social scientists have been postulating that our overdependence on technology and social media has contributed to the overall dumbing down and rising incivility of society.

Some experts believe this is because people who do lots of texting and e-mailing can develop feelings of insulation from normal social accountability. It seems that if a person doesn’t have to look others in the eyes, they feel safer saying all kinds of outrageous and offensive things. They can even block or “un-friend” others online without having to deal with messy real-time communications.

It’s not just scientists who are raising these concerns. Many journalists and other authors have noted how often nowadays people in public gathering places are talking on their cell phones or texting rather than relating to each other — some of them letting their children run wild while they do. No wonder incivility and behavior problems are rampant.

As for what to do with your friends, that depends on how important the friendship is and whether you’re willing to be the ones to take the initiative to salvage it. It appears to me Bob and Jim may have already checked out on it. However if you do care enough to try,

I’d ask for a night out — minus technology of any sort — and have a frank talk with them expressing your concerns. The rest will be up to them . . . but I wouldn’t expect too much.

Fred Schloemer, Ed.D., LCSW is a gay psychotherapist. Write him at FredSchlolemer63@gmail.com

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