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Have you ever been at a cafe or restaurant, and noticed that everybody seems to be looking down at their phones? Even when people are in obvious close social situations with each other, they seem to be distant. Sure, some people might need to check their phones every now and then, but it’s obvious that things have gone too far these days. It’s all too typical to see couples eating meals in silence while checking their phones, groups of teenagers laughing and talking at their screens and not with each other, and parents completely unaware of what their child next to them is doing.
In fact, things have gotten so bad that there’s actually a new term to describe this phenomenon: virtual distance. It refers to the feeling or perception that you are far away from someone else, even when you are in close physical proximity. The term was coined by Stony Brook assistant professor Karen Sobel Lojeski, who is increasingly concerned that virtual distance is to blame for a growing array of social problems.
Impact on relationships
The easiest way to see the impact of virtual distance in your own life is to think about your relationships. Do you find yourself learning about the lives of others, without actually meeting them in real life? Back in the day, you had to meet for lunch or coffee in order to find out about the latest events in a friend’s life, such as an upcoming vacation or a new job. Now, all you have to do is scroll through your social feeds, and you don’t have to meet in person. But that robs you of all the context – such as facial expressions, hand gestures, and voice modulation – that can help you appreciate the relative importance of any new event.
But the impact of “virtual distance” can be far more insidious, says Lojeski. For example, it can have a very negative impact on your closest relationships. Screens make it harder to talk in person, so that means parents might not be communicating with their kids, or that spouses might not be communicating with each other about a difficult issue. When it comes to dating, it might mean that one-half or more of a relationship is conducted entirely virtually. In fact, there are plenty of anecdotes of people meeting, falling in love, falling out of love, and separating – all without ever meeting in real life!
The “same as me” bias
Moreover, virtual distance contributes to a unique problem known as the “same as me” bias. This means that you, perhaps without even realizing it, are having a harder time figuring out what people around you are actually thinking. Since you are not meeting people in real life, you are forced to make assumptions about what people are thinking. The easiest assumption to make, of course, is that people are thinking just like you are thinking. But what if they are not? This can lead to a lot of miscommunication, or even worse.
How to avoid the virtual distance problem
Faced with all of these potentially negative consequences of virtual distance, what can one realistically do in the social media era? After all, we carry our phones with us everywhere we go, and social media use is ubiquitous. Well, says Lojeski, one easy way to help mitigate the impact of virtual distance is to make it a core principle to conduct all conversations on sensitive topics face-to-face. This includes arguments. You shouldn’t be damaging your relationships, just because you didn’t take the time to discuss things face-to-face.
In addition, you should make it a core principle to make all on-screen conversations supplemental to your other interactions. For some people, that might mean coming up with a general rule such as, “At least half of our interactions and conversations need to happen face-to-face.” For older social media users, the bar might be much higher. But the key point is that what happens in real life should matter more than what happens in virtual life. If you don’t follow that basic rule, you might be at real risk of damaging the most important relationships in your life. Even when you are very close to someone, you might actually be very distant.