New technology means students connect in isolation

Mark Stevens

Over the past several months there has been lots of discussion on my professional college student mental health listserves about the role of interactive technology on the well being of college students.

Being connected to your iPod, cell phone, MySpace and Facebook are expected behaviors and appear to be deeply rooted in today’s college students culture. So, from one psychologist’s perspective, here are the possible downsides of how connection and distraction technology may be impacting your mental health.

First I will offer some personal background: I do not own an iPod, I have never text messaged anyone and I have never used Instant Messaging. In other words, I fit the profile of most 50-plus individuals living on this planet. Even though I have not yet fully participated in the technology connection boom, I do have a variety of observations as well as information I hear from other students, which I find more than a little interesting.

For example, on a recent casual walk across campus from Bayramian Hall to the Student Health Center, I counted 94 students on their cell phones and 57 listening to their iPods. From my observation, usually over 60% of students leave a classroom and immediately reach for their cell phone in a seamless motion. I’ve heard through the grapevine, that students actually walk across campus with cell phone to their ear, just to look like they are talking to someone.

We know that students spend an enormous amount of time on their computers staying connected to their real friends and their Internet friends. Often times, the conversations on the Internet are more revealing and interpersonally courageous than in-person conversations. The capacity to meet new people with very little effort appears to be almost candy for the brain. The excitement of discovering new possible friends feeds many individuals’ longings to be noticed and recognized. The perceived anonymity of non-face-to-face interaction over the cell phone and to a greater extent over the computer allows for a “coming out” of sorts.

Students have told me that this perceived sense of freedom to be oneself enhances the relationship. Then I ask, “Well, do you ever meet these folks?” Typically the answer is no. “Do you think your opening up on the Internet helps you open up more in person?” Again the answer is usually no. Just like a conversation on an airplane between two strangers, the freedom to be oneself is enhanced by the reality that most likely, you will never have to see this person again.

I call this phenomenon of increased intimate interactions with folks you can’t really see (pictures do not count) or hear as “connecting in isolation.”

If these interpersonal Internet connection skills transferred to the real world of work and relationships, I would be cheering. However, I am not convinced that they do. In fact, I am concerned that when it comes to face-to-face negotiation and conflict resolution, this generation of technologically connected students may find themselves ill-prepared to interpret body language and regulate their own physical anxiety. Conversing in isolation, say over the Internet, means that one only has to manage understanding the written words and then be able to respond on the keyboard. There are no timing rules. Typically your body can stay calm, and you do not have to deal with the variety of external cues one has to consistently interpret during a face-to-face conversation. That is not the real world of business or relationships.

And what is the iPod phenomenon all about? It’s about great technology to listen to tons of music in one easy motion. Yet, when I view how many students seem to be in their own space while listening to their music, I wonder how many in-person conversations are being missed.

The above paragraphs are filled with ideas and hypotheses. These hypotheses are meant to be food for thought and encourage the reader to consider perhaps a larger view of how connection technology may actually in the long run be more of a distancing agent than a connecting agent. What follows in the next paragraph is not based on ideas, but on facts.

There are well-documented mental health dangers associated with Internet interactions and usage behaviors with students that include addictions to gambling and pornography, as well as MySpace in-person meetings that result in stranger rape. I know (from the stories I hear from my clients) that a significant number of students (mostly males) lose many hours of studying and sleep because of the time they spend gambling or looking at pornography on the Internet. Internet gambling and pornography are getting guys in lots of trouble. The addiction does not happen all at once; a pattern starts to play out and the consequences start to pile up. The hole becomes deeper and shame, lies and denial take over.

More recently, there have been reports from universities across the country of college women meeting guys they got to “know” (sometimes for several months) over MySpace, and what was hoped to be a friendly encounter actually becomes a real life nightmare. Internet connections are not always what they appear to be. Some folks know how to say all the right things for all the wrong reasons.

So after you finish reading this article, perhaps you could text message your friend to read the article, or send it as an attachment and invite him or her to discuss it over dinner. In-person – no iPods allowed.

Mark Stevens is the director of the University Counseling Services at California State University, Northridge. He can be reached at