Living under (cyber) cover: How technology is shaping our relationships
It all started with an “aha” moment of insight, between ordering a baby gift on potterybarnkids.com and downloading Taylor Swift on iTunes. The thinking went like this: Moms, endlessly in front of their laptops, smart phones or iPads, must be experiencing some sort of existential crisis. They’ve got too much Facebook, too little face time.
Aren’t today’s mothers feeling just a tiny bit . . . lonesome?
I tossed that question out — on Facebook, of course. Responses thundered back: “Noooooooooo!”
It turns out that young, millennial moms (also known as Generation Y) see the world just a bit differently than do moms a mere decade older. Their reality — online shopping, tweeting, texting, chatting through social networking websites and online communities — rarely includes trips to Target, Toys R Us, Barnes & Noble or even the supermarket. Why bother, when every retailer has a “.com” after its name?
“Sometimes, even with the promise of playing at Bel-Square’s play area, it can be a challenge getting anything accomplished at the mall with the kids,” says Issaquah resident Dana Macario. “While you’re trying on clothes, the kids finish their snacks and then look for ways to escape the dressing room, usually while you’re in a state of half-undress.”
Does she miss that old-time interaction with real people and real, um, clothes? Not so much. “Facebook gives us a quick connection with the adult world,” says Macario, who has two toddlers. “One or two minutes online, and you’ve caught up with friends, scheduled a playdate and read a few funny status updates.”
Telephone conversations still exist in theory. These young mothers don’t actually have them, though, unless they want to talk with their families. Who needs that antiquated talking tool, anyway?
“Twitter, FB, GChat, texting are so perfect for busy moms; I’ve made a lot of new friends that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” posts Taraneh Guidry, an event coordinator at the University of Washington.
A 2010 report by the social media agency Big Fuel finds that moms in this country spend two hours a day connecting with friends and acquaintances online, and watch more than 90 minutes of YouTube videos every month. Seventy-five percent of moms research products and services online, and more than 80 percent check out products in online videos.
If you think all that screen time isolates these parents socially, think again. A 2009 Pew study reports that people actually connect more — to their communities and to each other — when using the Internet and mobile phones. “People’s social worlds are enhanced by new communication technologies,” says the study’s author, Keith Hampton.
A whole new digital world
Still, it’s fair to wonder: Exactly what kind of social world are we talking about? Can we meet and greet without actually meeting and greeting? Is real, physical human contact just so prehistoric, or at least so pre-Skype?
“The millennial moms are speaking a different language,” says Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender expert and author of You’re Grounded Forever . . . But First, Let’s Go Shopping. “This kind of communication is their currency. It’s what they’ve been exposed to and what they know.”
These women feel understood and known by other young mothers, and don’t have to sit in the same room to feel that way, she says. “The world changes. We will always crave the human touch, but this new model is very much technologically driven.”
Many young parents seem unfazed by the quality of these cyber-relationships. “These moms are very willing to adapt. This is what’s offered to them,” says Barash. “If you tweet about it, you are getting the word out. If 45 people tweet back, that’s very satisfying. Face time is just not as important as it was.”
For some moms, face time is downright daunting. Liz Zook is a stay-at-home mom from Murfreesboro, Tenn., who recently planned a rare night out with the girls.
“Honestly, I’m nervous as hell, because I don’t have human contact outside of family and the post office,” she says. “I used to thrive on social interaction.” These days, her interaction is limited to social networking. “When I do see my friends, I end up talking so much, they get annoyed with me. I’m starving for good, non-Internet-based conversation.”
Maybe that’s why Web-generated dialogue — let’s call it “e-speak” — simply doesn’t cut it for those of us who are used to one-on-one, in-person contact. “Sure, I do online shopping and Skype, and use my phone constantly to text and email,” says Seattle mom Leslie Aiona. “But I use it to set up face-to-face interaction. Lunches, dinners, real time with my friends.”
Aiona, who is 40, sees a “generational divide” between her peers and younger women. “The younger crowd — even five years younger — is more involved with Facebook and with online moms groups. But I find getting together with my friends invaluable.”
Cara Young, a 42-year-old Seattle stay-at-home mother of three, turns to technology for just about everything: banking, shopping, appointments, managing the carpool. But she draws the line at virtual relationships. “Facebook doesn’t tell people who you really are,” says Young. “You never really know someone until you can see them. The way life gets better is being with people that you love.”
It’s not just Gen X moms who get no love from laptops. Peter Savigny, a 50-year-old stay-at-home dad who lives in White Plains, N.Y., is an art director who once lived a busy, socially engaged life working for Primetime Live and the NBA. He takes care of his dogs, his business and his son, all from home.
He misses — desperately misses — real-time, real human connections. “The computer is a horrible replacement for social interaction,” he says. “I’m a gregarious, social person. I bang my head against the wall three times a day.”
He’s no Facebook fan. “People think they’ve interacted,” says Savigny, “but it’s fluff: ‘I was at the beach today.’ ‘I flipped my mattress.’ One iota of me has touched one iota of you.”
Touching vs. touch screens
Social networking, as the Pew study points out, connects people. We get to virtually visit — whether through listservs, online forums or Facebook — with our second-grade pal, our aunt from France, and the friend of a friend of a friend who loved the YouTube video of our 3-year-old singing “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”
Thanks to instant, infinite information, there’s no longer a need to phone a friend, pop by a neighbor’s, or linger over a latte to discuss a health issue (webmd.com), a recipe (epicurious.com) or a parenting dilemma (parentmap.com — you’re probably on it). We’ve learned to get by with a little help from our cyberfriends.
But these connections lack . . . something. Depth? Intensity? Are we craving quantity and ditching quality?
Liliana Lengua, Ph.D., thinks so. “Having a relationship means being present, being in the moment and being aware,” says Lengua, a psychology professor at the University of Washington. “There’s value in being mindful of the social context around you and the person in front of you,” she says.
She wonders whether those of us living online lives will understand what a deep, loyal friendship looks like. “Maybe our family members will be our closest relationships because we spend more time with them offline,” she says. “It’s left to be seen if we will have the same level of empathy and depth of understanding of people’s emotions and needs.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of spending time with people, says Elizabeth R. Lombardo, Ph.D., the author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. “Getting a hug or having someone touch you releases certain hormones in our body that reduce stress and help us bond.”
A Facebook relationship is short term and transient, she says. “It’s not that online is bad, it’s just a different experience. When you’re having lunch with a friend for an hour and a half, you’re sharing a lot of emotion.”
Online mom groups help today’s parents feel they’re part of a community, says Lengua. “People no longer stay in the small neighborhoods where they grew up. They don’t have access to intergenerational wisdom, but they do have access to a global community.” She questions this kind of global, general guidance. “What’s absent is that specially attuned advice from someone who knows you well.”
None of that seems to bother Minnesota mom blogger Jen Jamar (lifewithlevi.com), who found motherhood isolating until she learned to love the Web. “Twitter became my best friend, since I knew I could log on in the middle of the night and still find other moms to talk to. Experienced moms would offer advice, and fellow new moms would commiserate,” she says.
Seattle mom Erica Zidel sees it this way: “Sure, technology changes social relationships,” she says. “The quality of our interactions are more frequent but less deep, and it’s harder to have those long, therapeutic conversations.”
And although she’s interfacing more with screens than with people, and she sometimes misses being in an actual store, and her 5-year-old son once shoved the computer off the dining table in sheer frustration with her, living online is “the new normal,” she says. “The worst thing would be if my computer died. Then I’d be shut off from society.”
Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s managing editor and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential.
Did you know that American moms. . .
- Spend two hours each day with online friends
- Watch YouTube 90 minutes per month
- 75 percent research products and services online
- 80 percent check out products on online videos.