Disconnected Connection

Two blog posts in my inbox caught my attention recently.

One, from Austim-Mom.com, pulled something out of my recent post about Ryan tackling an aerial obstacle course. To prep Ryan for the course, I showed him YouTube videos of it to give him some visual perspective about the challenges he was going to face. Autism Mom used a similar approach to prep her son for a recent trip, and the post was all about the ways we can use the internet to benefit kids on the spectrum by previewing certain experiences for them. It’s an interesting post and I encourage you to read the full thing here.

Second was a post from my friend Chris and his blog “Thinking About Thinking.” His topic? Selfie sticks. This was not an old man “get off my lawn” denunciation of the scourge of selfie sticks leading to the downfall of civilization. Rather, it was a measured, introspective commentary on what those sticks represent — simple social interactions, avoided. Chris’s point was that all our constant connectivity is leading us to become very disconnected from real, in-person social interactions. Any parent who has watched two kids texting one another from opposite ends of the same sofa is probably nodding in agreement right now. The full post can be read here.

I see both sides of the coin here. There’s no question that by spending so much time staring at tiny screens, we are spending less time actually connecting with one another. On the other hand, I don’t think those connections, fostered through the devices we all carry and are ever more attached to, are any less real.

I have also seen how, for those who struggle with face-to-face social connections, using those devices as a proxy for in-person interactions can serve as a real gateway to more traditional forms of social contact.

For a kid who is awkward and perhaps struggles with eye contact, it’s a lot easier to send a text than attempt a phone call or a face-to-face conversation. Does that make the connection any less meaningful? I don’t think so. Ryan finds phone conversations much easier than he once did, but they still can be challenging for him. If he had to call or speak face-to-face to arrange time with friends, I think there would be fewer such meetings for him.

Likewise, if he is able to experience something virtually before he tries it in real life, as he did with the YouTube videos of the aerial course, I don’t think that cheapens his experience in any way. One might argue that it robs life of the joys of spontaneity, but spontaneous is not really Ryan’s thing. Lessening his anxiety by planning things out and helping him understand what he will experience and when opens many doors for him. I’ll take that tradeoff every time.

At the same time, I appreciate Chris’s point about those toting selfie sticks around are missing out on the opportunity to connect with those around them by asking for a picture. When I see people trying to arrange a perfect selfie at a sporting event or tourist spot, I often offer to take a picture for them, but the response is split between people who are grateful for the offer and those who give me a strange look.

On those rare occasions when Ryan wants to take a picture at some significant event or location, I’m glad he has the means to do it without having to have a social interaction with a stranger. (I’m also glad neither of my kids has asked for a selfie stick. So far, their arms have sufficed.) I’d hate for him to be denied those memories over anxiety of social interactions.

There is no question our always-on devices have connected us to the world in ways that were confined to science fiction novels just a few years ago. There is also no question that something is lost in the process. But you have to weigh the pros and cons, particularly for those with social deficits, for whom the connected world has opened up great possibilities.

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