3 Ways the Internet Makes Us LESS Connected than Ever, and What You Can Do

girl and guy deep conversation over coffee (1)

Social Networks, the Internet and You

The technology that connects us to the internet has a powerful pull on us. It is changing us, our families, and the way society works. It is time for a hard look at how our media habits are impacting our social interactions, both as individuals and as a society. The internet is meant to connect us, but may actually be making us less connected from our social supports, and more distracted with our loved ones.

The addictive features of persuasively designed devices (and apps), are changing the way we behave socially, … within our families, in our relationships, and with other people. Not in a good way either.

Full disclosure, in this post I am sharing what I see happening around me. I believe that people want rich, full relationships with loved ones, but that compulsive screen use is an unrecognized  barrier.

My opinion is informed by research papers I have been reading for this blog, and what I see in my practice but I haven’t seen my concerns show up on a scholar’s radar yet.

Virtual Social Connections vs Face-to-face Social Interaction.

It’s complicated:

  • Some online relationships are deep and real.
  • Some face to face interpersonal interaction is superficial and fake.
  • Not all in person encounters are helpful and supportive.
  • People get encouragement and support in online communities.
But certain generalities are more true than they are not.

Think of your own online social connections for a minute:

  • How would you describe them? … rich and real?
  • What subjects are they mostly about? … do they matter to you?
  • Do contacts share trivialities or relevance?  anything inspire you?
  • What values are on view?

Would you agree that social media tends to be … superficial?

And how do the interactions make you feel? For most of us the answer is… “Not so good.”

I think the most important question is:

What steps should we take to make in-person connections deeper, while enjoying online social connections

Relationships That Feed Us

… are not usually online.

The best moments in any relationship are when you feel like you have been heard and understood. When you feel like the other person “really gets” who you are.

Can you remember when that happened for you?

Such a connection is validating, and the need for validation runs deep in all of us.
Do you ever feel validated by any of your social media contacts?

Counting the Ways Digital Media Makes Us Less Connected

#1. Your Captured Attention …as Loved Ones Get Phubbed.

We give digital media priority attention instead of flesh and blood people with whom we live. Social media is a big draw but also games, browsing and email.

But the people we’ll lean on if trouble knocks on our door, are the ones we can touch. You know your phone won’t give you a hug, or a soft place to fall.

Related: Your Smartphone Hijacks Your Attention… Even when it is OFF!

A recent study speculated that we give phones priority because people think of devices as a representation of the social network where they belong… maybe, but I think it is just as likely a conditioned response from the dopamine buzz your phone delivers. Persuasive design that is changing society much more than intended.

The research is clear though… the presence of a phone holds and divides our attention outside of our conscious awareness. The pull of your phone makes social interaction that takes place around it less engaged, more distracted, and definitely superficial.

The same research study showed that when the phone was removed, participants made a deeper connection with their conversation partner, gathering more information during the interaction.

This finding has been repeated over and over … the presence of a phone (even off):

  • Impairs concentration and productivity in the workplace, at the same time that users think they are skilled at multitasking.
  • Changes the quality of conversation at a meal, to less engaged and more distracted, and
  • Makes a meal where a phone is on the table less enjoyable for diners.

Do you recognize any of this in your own experience? I sure do.

The device is designed to grab our attention and hold it. The result is that we don’t notice when loved ones want us. We can phub them when we are on autopilot … in The Phone Zone. Don’t beat yourself up… it’s not your fault.
But you should make the effort to fix it anyway.


The best way I know to FIX phubbing, is to deliberately decide you will turn away from your phone every time a real person wants your attention. Give mindful priority to your flesh and blood peeps.

I tell my online contacts ahead of time that I will leave them when I’m needed in person. I make sure my loved ones see me turn off the phone when they seek me out… to balance phubs I don’t notice.

Phone Free Times and Spaces in the home can make resistance easier and give relationships-in-person a chance to deepen as we nurture them.

#2. Your Social Circle:
A Broader Network of More Superficial Connections?

Every time you use digital media it is training you to chase the dopamine buzz. Features in the device (or app), reinforce a conditioned response. Scrolling and clicking is a good example of this because each new thing gives you a hit, and then you go after another, and another.

The conditioned pull may explain why social interactions, especially online, are so often superficial. There are other factors:

  • Posing. I think most people try to put a good face on, not their reality.
  • There are incentives to be mean, or at least not to care very much about others.
  • Platforms reward competitiveness, coerced reciprocity, and comparisons… not true friendship, social support, and real connection.

Superficiality online may be nothing more than a reminder that people seldom reveal their innermost heart in a public, unsafe place.

If true, societal changes in social interaction and support may come down to the amount of time spent on face-to-face connections versus the time given to social media.

The FIX: Make sure you plan time to nurture face-to-face relationships in person. On purpose.


The most rewarding relationships run deep. They are validating. They involve listening and sharing that takes time and trust. They require attention and care to keep them alive and growing.

They are much more likely to develop in person than online.
I wish relationships like this for you.

Nurturing Deeper Connections with Loved Ones

= MORE: Love, Warmth, Laughter…

Taking time and giving space to go deeper with your relationships in person, builds meaning and joy. The payoffs build and grow. This is the juice that makes life sweet.

HERE IS A LOVING NUDGE: Do any of your relationships need attention?
Why not set up a visit right now while you are thinking about it.

#3 Underdeveloped Interpersonal Skills from Lack of Face-to-face Practice 

Having Friends is Good for Your Health

Are there people in your circle of flesh and blood friends who would drop everything to help if you need it?

A support network of people who genuinely care about you boosts your resilience and well being. You build such a network by:

  • being a good friend,
  • sharing fun and other experience, and
  • showing up to help your mate when they need you.

True friendship is a social interaction.

Social media can displace these relationships if you let it.

People who have trouble with social interaction spend a lot of time online … and people who spend a lot of time online report feeling awkward in face to face social encounters. The research suggests a chicken and egg thing, where it is unclear which part of the situation comes first.

There is probably a vicious cycle happening too… where lack of practice makes awkwardness more acute… and retreat to the online space is easier, leading to fewer opportunities to practice social skills.

You will have a happier, more rewarding life if you deliberately foster face-to-face reciprocal friendships and give them some of the time you spend online.

Friendship happens when you seek social situations where you can meet people and practice your social skills (… if they are rusty).

Stories from Real Life

I am seeing anecdotal reports from different sectors, parents, students, educators, human resources recruiters, and college support service staff. I have heard:

  • People interviewing to hire new staff were shocked when young people did not know they should give eye contact in a job interview.
  • Young people enter post secondary education with really high anxiety because they feel lacking in life and people skills, and basic competence to manage day to day life.
  • Young people who feel as scared of everyday, face to face social situations as my generation feared public speaking.

I am sure there are multiple contributing factors. It will be years before changes are studied and answers known,  but I’m willing to bet that screen time is displacing normal social engagement in many people.

I think everyone- society, families, and individuals, may be poorer for it.

Be Watchful and Create Opportunities for Growth

Scholars are beginning to study and report:

  • Ability to feel empathy seems to be eroding because children are not getting enough face to face play with other children to read emotional cues.
  • Children expect stimulus-reward and quit very easily when blocked, instead of learning perseverance.
  • Kids are sheltered from risk to such an extent that many will have little chance to learn resilience.

Competence getting along with other people comes from face to face practice that should begin in childhood. Digital media use appears to be displacing developmental tasks that lead to social competence.

People who have underdeveloped social skills will have difficulty maintaining meaningful relationships. Many will isolate themselves with the illusion of connection on social media, rather than do a hard, risky thing that feels uncomfortable.

I hope you will find ways to make face to face connections with people you care about.

Life really is more rewarding in person, on purpose.


Media Use can disconnect friends unless relationships are nurtured.



About the Author

Peggy McLauchlan is a counsellor, ACT therapist, and personal development coach in Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in positive psychology practices applied to problems with modern digital technology, like smartphone addiction and problematic internet use.


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