freestocks/stocksnap
Source: freestocks/stocksnap

I’m not among the purists who insist that mobile devices and social media are signaling the end of civilization. The technological revolution is benefiting society in many ways. It’s benefiting me personally. If nothing else, the GPS on my phone means my pitiful sense of direction is less of an albatross than it once was; I spend far less time lost and spewing frustrated profanities than I once did.

As someone who, like many introverts, finds the telephone onerous, I feel liberated by texting. On a good day, I genuinely enjoy Facebook. (On bad days, I rue this access we have to other people’s ids. Some things I just don’t want or need to know.) There are times—i.e. long waits in the doctor’s office—when a pocket-sized entertainment center is a godsend. And any number of apps have become daily necessities in my life, from my banking app to Resistbot.

But I also realize that at times, the easy accessibility of the virtual world allows me to indulge my introversion to a degree that isn’t necessarily good for me. The invisible bubble I used to create around myself, as insulation from the boisterous world, is now a screen. I can be in the world but not engaged with it. Perhaps even when I want to be. Research finds that even when we’re face to face with other people, the mere presence of a smartphone can degrade the quality of the interaction.

That’s depressing. And it’s not who I want to be or how I want to live.

I don’t want my phone interfering with intimacy. I don’t want my friends to be little more than photographs, and my interactions carefully curated quips. I don’t want to be oblivious to what’s happening around me because I’ve retreated into a virtual world. I don’t want my conversations to be limited to what my two clumsy thumbs manage to bumble out.

These days, even email is more than most people want to bother with. Once upon a time, I had intense, philosophical discussions via email. These days, most people prefer texting. And often, even words seem too much bother, so they resort to emojis and images, perhaps with the new shorthand for emotion: TFW

Even as I am intrigued by the shift communication is taking, this hurts my deep-thinking introvert brain. Is conversation being replaced by small talk? And by individual, isolated processing of images, shared only in the virtual world?

TFW when you wonder if your essential being is obsolete.

And yet….

The ability to communicate without face-to-face interaction is weirdly seductive to my introverted self. It’s so … easy. I can almost convince myself that I am completely in control of all my virtual interactions. I can almost believe that I have an active social life because I have an active social media life.

Until I start feeling bad. I start getting infuriated with people I know only in the virtual world or, worse, with people I genuinely like IRL. I realize the people I feel emotionally closest with are geographically far away. I find myself at a loss when I’m craving real face time with real humans in their flesh-and-blood form.

I imagine this post will generate pious reactions from people who have chosen to avoid social media altogether. To each his own, but I prefer not to be disconnected from one of the largest and most culturally significant developments in my lifetime. As it is, I’m only nominally on Twitter and miss a lot as a result. But Twitter stresses me out and gives me a headache. I’m active on Facebook and Instagram and that’s enough for me.

Still, like much of the First World, I’m having to learn how to engage in the virtual world without disappearing into it.

And so I try to give myself guidelines for my interactions. I’d call them rules, but then I’d have to admit how often I break them. Because right now, the spirit is strong but the flesh is weak. I’m not always as good at following my guidelines as I’d like to be. But still I try, on a regular basis, to…

  • Recognize the symptoms of spending too much time on social media and take action to get back into the real world. (These are likely to be individual—do you know your symptoms?)
  • Keep my phone out of sight in social situations. I might pull it out to find the answer to a question or resolve a fact-related dispute, but I don’t check email or social media, and I put it away again when I’m done. After all, if I'm going to be selective about who I spend time with, I should treat those people and that time as sacrosanct.
  • Look at nature rather than photographing it. How many sunset photos do I need, anyway? Don't I get out in nature to soothe my fevered soul? Does my phone further that cause? 
  • Resist checking my phone at every stoplight—instead I look at the sky, at birds, at people on the street.
  • People watch instead of burying my face in my phone when I’m in line at the store, waiting to board a flight, or waiting for my food in a restaurant. How much of the world’s serendipity do I miss when I'm not paying attention?
  • Take a break from posting on Facebook on weekends, even if I sneak peeks to see what other people post. (I’m not superhuman.)
  • Say yes to as many opportunities for real-life interactions as my introversion can withstand. Having social media friends isn’t the same as having real friends, and the only way to make real friends is to spend real-world time together.
  • Use software that cuts me off from social media when I need to get work done.

I don’t say that extroverts are immune to being sucked into the smartphone. But I do wonder if, as introverts, we are at greater risk. In many ways, the retreat that technology offers is an introvert's dream come true. We just have to make sure it’s a dream from which we are capable of awaking. 

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