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Psychology of Technology: Disconnectivity Anxiety

Do you freak out when you lose your mobile phone signal? Do you get stressed when your Internet goes down? Are you mortified if you have to use dial-up to access your email? If so, you may be suffering from “Disconnectivity Anxiety” (I’m talking to you Doug and David!).  Though not an official psychiatric disorder, I see it as a growing problem in our “gotta be connected 24/7” culture. I define Disconnectivity Anxiety (DA) as: “a persistent and unpleasant condition characterized by worry and unease caused by periods of technological disconnection from others.”

DA typically presents itself during a breakdown in the technology that makes communication today instantaneous and continuous, whether telephone (landline or mobile), Internet, text messaging, or simply when someone else doesn’t respond immediately. DA is associated with symptoms of worry, negative emotions, such as fear, anger, frustration, and despair, and physical distress. The only short-term relief is restoration of the connection.

I have seen increasing signs of DA among a wide range of people including clients with whom I consult in the business world, stay-at-home moms, teenagers, and, admittedly, me. This article is an attempt to put myself “on the couch “ in the hopes of better understanding this growing problem and finding some solutions for DA for everyone who suffers from it.

Reactions to DA run the gamut of Kubler-Ross’s model of grieving (in no particular order): 1) Denial: “This can’t be happening to me;” 2) Anger: “Whoever is responsible is going to pay;” 3) Bargaining: “If my Internet comes back up now, I promise not to ____ ever again;” 4) Depression: “What’s the point, I give up;” and 5) Acceptance: “I might as well take a break anyway.”

So, given the immense convenience offered by today’s technology, why do we have such adverse reactions on the relatively rare occasions that our connections are broken? I think there are several explanations.

First, our expectations of connectivity have changed dramatically in the past decade. Before the Internet, mobile phones, text messaging, and now Twitter, we simply knew we couldn’t be reached readily by anyone except in person or by landline telephone. The default was disconnectivity, so being disconnected was the norm. Any ability to connect beyond that was a bonus. These days, the expectation is that we can be connected in many ways at any time by anyone. The default is connectivity, so being connected has become the norm. Any break from that norm feels like a loss.

Second, the ubiquitous connectivity that technology has offered us has changed our perceptions of ourselves. Somehow, being connected has become connected to our self-esteem. I remember when early adapters had mobile phones—remember those massive, gray Motorola phones of the early 90’s—I was so jealous because those who had them were obviously so successful and important that they needed to be in constant contact—even at $3 a minute. Now when we’re connected, we feel better about ourselves. If we’re connected, we’re important. And if we’re important, we must be valued. And if we’re valued, we must be worthwhile people. The paradox is that, given that just about everyone has a mobile phone and Internet access these days—the janitor is as accessible as the CEO—being connected says nothing about our importance or our worth as people.

Third, the immediacy of connectivity today has created a new generation of instant gratifiers. Previous generations had the instant gratification of fast food, microwaves, and ATMs. Now the immediate gratification is not only fast, but, in the case of Twitter, instantaneous and ongoing. When deprived of that immediate gratification, we feel, well, ungratified.

Finally, our perceptions about relationships have changed dramatically as our connections with others are often more virtual than reality. Our communications have become more immediate and brief. And not being able to access those relationships creates doubt and insecurity, especially among young and single people who frequently develop relationships virtually before they even meet in person. Relationships have also fallen victim to the need for instant gratification. Family, friends, lovers, and co-workers can now communicate constantly by telephone (how primitive), email (also rather primitive), text messages, and Twitter.

All of these explanations have conspired to make us connectivity addicts. As we all know, when our drug of choice is removed, we go into withdrawals and the only way to remove unpleasant symptoms is to get another dose of the drug, in this case, reconnection. The question now is: Is there a way to relieve our Disconnectivity Anxiety?

The obvious solution is to give up your connectivity addiction cold turkey. Now you’re thinking, “Is Dr. Jim absolutely crazy?!?!” Now hold on a sec. I’m not saying you should disconnect your life completely and become a Luddite; that’s just not possible unless you want to live in a cave somewhere out in the boonies. I didn’t say to give up your connectivity, just your unhealthy relationship with it. What I mean is to change your relationship with your connectivity by paring it back to only what is minimally necessary to work and live. Do you really need email and Internet access 24/7? Do you really need to be reached on your mobile phone every moment of every day? Not likely.

I think you will find that, after an initial increase in your DA—classic withdrawal symptoms—it will subside and you will regain perspective and balance in the role that connectivity plays in your life. With this shift, your expectations about connectivity will moderate as well. You may want to stay connected, but you will no longer expect or need to be connected. You can return to allowing connectivity be a tool that serves you, not a master to whom you serve. As a bonus, you may find that you’re able to enjoy being in the moment more and your relationships may improve too.

You can also change the meaning that connectivity has for you by disconnecting your connectivity from your self-esteem. Consider what really makes you feel good about yourself—your values, your life’s activities, your relationships, your good works. Also, recognize the absurdity of having your connectivity impact how you value yourself.

Finally, change your attitude toward connectivity. See being disconnected as a positive rather than  a negative, perhaps as a form of liberation, not unlike a dog being let off his leash for a while who can now run free. Look for ways in which you can actually use disconnection to enrich your life. See disconnected times as opportunities to be in the here and now with people or activities. Think about how disconnection from the virtual world can allow you to build and strengthen real connections with real people in the real world. Look for occasions where you can actually embrace being disconnected, for example, where you need to totally focused on a project at work with no distractions, while having dinner out, being with your family or friends, or getting some exercise.

Because, on your death bed, you’re not going to regret missing a few emails, text messages, or Tweets.

To read more about the Psychology of Technology and other topics, visit my blog.