Dr Carey Kirk, Counselling psychologist, based in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

When you’re feeling snubbed at a party because the social world on the web is more appealing to the attendees than their peers, bear in mind that you’re not alone.

According to Dr Carey Kirk, a counselling psychologist, based in Dubai, ‘phubbing’ has become a major problem in today’s society.

She said: “Over the past several years, we have seen an exponential rise in the amount of time both adults and children spend “connecting” to their peers, relatives, and colleagues on social media sites and through technology. While technologies such as BBM, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter can be a useful tool to help us maintain relationships from a distance, they are increasingly being used as a substitute for personal interactions.”

While people are focusing on developing online friends, they are losing touch with reality.

Kirk said: “Parents and children alike sit with their phones or devices at the dinner table or on the couch and family conversations are being increasingly interrupted or replaced by our compulsion to check our devices.

“Anyone in our network can access our Instagram or Facebook photos, but the emotional connectedness of someone knowing and understanding us is no longer part of our relationships. By texting and passively communicating through posts and tweets, we are taking the intimacy out of our friendships and erecting barriers around ourselves that we may or may not be aware of.”

According to Kirk, this leads to a “pervasive loneliness” and people use more social media to remedy this.

She said: “In the family environment, research indicated that we are becoming more closed off. In the past, parents were more aware of what was going on in their child’s life because their behaviour and interactions were in person. Today, much of our children’s social worlds take place silently – through SMS and social media – giving parents less opportunity to offer support and protection when needed. Additionally, parents are using devices at home. Working parents put their children and partners on hold while they respond to a work request outside of the office.”

Another point raised by Kirk was that of people’s inability to deal with an awkward situation.

She said: “Before mobile phones and other hand held devices, we had little choice but to be present with the people around us. If an awkward situation arose, we would either find a way to navigate the awkwardness or physically leave. Today, we exit mentally without physically leaving the company of those around us by shifting our attention to our devices. Withdrawing into a virtual world feels easier because it allows us to avoid the hard work needed to sit through discomfort and build real and lasting relationships.”

Dr Akbar Keshodkar, an assistant professor teaching anthropology at Zayed University, believes that technology has revolutionised the ability of people to communicate with each other.

He said: “Today, one can communicate with someone else in the most remote parts of the world. This has allowed families and friends to stay in greater contact and maintain varying levels of proximity in their social relationships. However, at the same time, the extent to and the rate at which people now expect you to stay in communication with them dramatically infringes on personal and private time, which one could enjoy before. The constant need to stay in contact with people or know what others are doing is limiting the extent to which we can enjoy how we engage in various activities and live our own lives. The level of social interaction we can enjoy suffers due to the level at which we are increasingly distracted from things going on elsewhere.”

When asked if communication had isolated the human race, he said: “Ease in communication has helped human beings from all over the world to come into greater proximity to each other than ever before. However, though we are closer, these advancements have failed in fostering and promoting greater levels of understanding and empathy towards one another. We are now interested in communicating only those things that are relevant to our needs and desires and it seems that the way in which we increasingly communicate with each other is to pursue our own selfish goals.”

Technology was originally supposed to help and not hinder. One wonders if it has become an impediment to communication.

Keshodkar said: “It is important to recognise that all technological advancements are tools to assist how we live our lives. However, we turn to technology so much that we no longer know how to communicate without it. The art of conversation, discussions and debates suffer because we now lack the ability to articulate our thoughts beyond a few words.”

We may not be conscious of it, but ‘phubbing’ sends out a message that the real time conversation or the person in front of you is less important than your social world. People can feel devalued and isolated.