Entertainment tech is too good for our own good

Entertainment tech is too good for our own good

While walking around campus, I often feel like I’m in a peculiar kind of silent disco. The majority of students—myself included—pop earbuds in as soon as lecture ends and immediately hustle to the next activity. On several occasions, the music blasting from my own earbuds has caused me to miss when my friends call out to say “hello” as I’m crossing KSL Oval or the Case Quad; yet, the perpetual supply of music suggestions from my AI Spotify DJ makes it difficult to break the habit. I could dismiss these lost interactions as insignificant, but I think they reflect the larger phenomenon that we are allowing technology to isolate ourselves from other people.

Technologies such as radio, text messaging and video calls have, from their early days, carried the promise of connecting the world. And in some ways, they have succeeded in doing so. It is incredible that we can chat with family and friends from across the globe in real time whenever we please. In healthcare, the implementation of telehealth appointments has improved accessibility and convenience of the services for which it is appropriate. Most plainly, the recent pandemic demonstrated the utility of video conferencing platforms in situations where in-person interactions aren’t realistic.

Despite these benefits, technology is driving us apart in other ways. Experts recognize that the U.S. population is experiencing what has been coined an “epidemic of loneliness.” A 2023 advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, states that “approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults.” Notably, one U.S. study included in the advisory found that individuals who report spending more than two hours per day on social media were nearly twice as likely to report feelings of social isolation relative to those who only use social media for half an hour or less.

While it’s clear that spending too much time online literally reduces the time we can spend interacting with others and with the world around us, there are certain aspects of advancing technologies that makes them particularly effective at drawing us into social isolation.

For one, up-and-coming tech products promise more captivating experiences than before. Think of the new Apple Vision Pro, a virtual reality (VR) headset. Apple itself claims that the “immersive” device can put you “right inside the action” of games and movies, “[transforming] any room into your own personal theater.” Why spend time outdoors when you can view your photos and videos in a complete panorama so that you “feel like you’re standing right where you took them?” Why make a 15-minute trip to visit your friends if your digital “Persona” can transmit a realistic representation of your face and hand movements? In essence, the experience of a virtual life is being sold to us as superior to real life.

There are some predictions that the product won’t achieve widespread success, especially given its current $3,499 price tag, goofy appearance and potential social disapproval. Admittedly, even though the Vision Pro is not the first product of its kind, walking around using augmented reality devices is still far from the norm. However, Apple’s push to make it the next household tech appliance is a reflection of how hyper-engaging, socially isolating technology will continue occupying more space in our lives.

Even though I am skeptical of exceptionally engaging entertainment technologies, I imagine that I, too, would fall victim to spending countless hours using their extraordinary features if I were to have the opportunity. It really could be awesome to experience movies, concerts and video calls with a VR headset. But this is precisely the outcome that concerns me most: Virtual entertainment is becoming so enticing that we are losing our freedom to choose whether we want to engage with it or not.

This phenomenon is observable even in the absence of fancy, cutting-edge devices. Consider that survey data from 2022 by Pew Research Center found that 35% of teens report using at least either YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook “almost constantly.” Or that the endless, personalized content provided in the short-form videos of TikTok and Instagram Reels trigger patterns of dopamine release in the brain that drive social media addiction, on top of the fact that they leverage the social appeal of likes and followers. Or that people can now opt to spend time chatting with their Snapchat AI bot instead messaging real people.

Ultimately, the exciting possibilities that new technological developments are offering come at the cost of us withdrawing from one another. It is too easy to shell out more time and attention to our digital devices than to the people around us. Take a minute to check in on your tech and social media usage—your relationships are worth it.

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