I called Blazer and then Holt-Lunstad to ask whether more creative and consistent use of digital communication could significantly lift that loneliness and mitigate those negative outcomes. Both said that my question was unanswerable in terms of the available science.
But both also said that, in their guts, they didn’t believe that the pandemic would teach us that such connection is anywhere close to the real thing. It’s a supplement, not a substitute; an in-a-pinch alternative, not a whole new norm.
Blazer noted that we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Only the first two come into play when we interact with someone online, and even those are compromised, regardless of the hardware’s or software’s finesse.
“The quality of your voice can be different in person,” Blazer said — subtler, more fine-grained. He added: “I’ve worked with older people for many years, and sometimes, just putting a hand on their arm can make a big difference in being able to communicate with them.” It telegraphs good intentions, eases inhibitions and fosters intimacy.
Holt-Lunstad came up with a great metaphor for digital versus actual encounters. An online conversation, she said, “is kind of like processed food. It’s better than nothing.” It’s a convenience in the clutch, satiating in the moment and easily consumed by enormous numbers of people. Some forms of it have some nutrition. But it’s not an optimal or sustainable long-term diet.
And it has additives that make it more alluring and even addictive. For processed foods, those are high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate and other flavor enhancers. For social media, those are likes, shares and favorites, which confer a hollow affirmation from people who won’t ever leave chicken soup at our doorsteps or, for that matter, cross the thresholds of our homes.
I keep thinking of those famous studies about the importance of touch to infants and how those deprived of it suffer greatly. We adults also suffer without it, if not quite as much.
When we connect only via laptop and smartphone screens, there are no handshakes, no hugs.
And when we clink glasses virtually, they don’t make a sound.
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Frank Bruni has been with The Times since 1995 and held a variety of jobs — including White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic — before becoming a columnist in 2011. He is the author of three best-selling books. @FrankBruni • Facebook