A Critical Danger to Our Way of Life: Insularity

I am not born for one corner; 
the whole world is my native land. 

— Seneca 

One of my former students once told me that he did not make a single phone call to his fellow MBAs during his entire two-year program. All communication was by Facebook, text message and Whatsapp.  

With a constant queue of people vying for our attention on social media and email, many of us have greatly reduced the number of people we’re willing to speak with in real time by phone or in person. While many prior friends have been expelled from our inner circles, there has been a surprising benefit to another social group: direct family members.  

Many people now only make phone calls to their closest family members—especially their parents. (The above student called his parents daily.) Why? Because, as data from the annual General Social Survey indicates, they are the only ones who will actually answer the phone! 

Sorry, Not Available 

When you call anyone else, your desire to converse in real time is often met by their voice mail greeting. It then takes a while for them to return your call—if they return your call, that is. 

So when people are looking for socioemotional support, who do they go to? Someone they can count on. Someone who will answer the phone or at least call them back soon. The gap between the responsiveness of close family and everyone else has widened to the point where oftentimes people will elect to call family repeated times per day and certainly per week because they’re the only people they can reach. Thank God for Mom and Dad. 

Return to the Clan 

Many people rely on family even more now for socioemotional support because they don’t feel fulfilled communicating solely through digital means with friends. Hence, one consequence of the Internet is that we’re becoming more clan-like. 

There is a downside to narrowing the people we still speak with to those who share our genes. Evolutionary psychologists claim that “kin selection,” or favoritism toward family members who share your genetic makeup, is at the root of ethnic conflictAs the biologist E.O. Wilson admonishes, kin selection is “the enemy of civilization. If human beings are to a large extent guided … to favor their own relatives and tribe, only a limited amount of global harmony is possible.” 

The uptick in kin selection is the only phenomenon I can point to in order to understand the increased fear of child abduction that impels many parents today to hover over their children and keep them off the streets. There hasn’t been a significant increase in child kidnappings—about 100 to 150 children are the victims of successful abductions in the US per year—so it’s difficult to understand the motives of the current helicopter parent generation unless we consider the insularity that device–induced kin selection fosters. 

The Go-to Solution for Lonely Parents: Turn Your Kids into Your Friends 

How does this happen? The less parents are able to develop friendships outside of their families (feel my Daddy pain here: social overture by phone with potential new friend semi-rejected with the return of a short text either because they are single and I’ve lost my game and am not a good wingman or because they are married with kids and too busy raising them for much of a social life), the more they rely on their children for social connection. 

This desperate attempt to mold their children into friends often actually prevents these parents from being parents. Later, the same helicopter parents often blame their involuntarily insulated kids for not having sufficient friends of their own. 

These underlying reasons notwithstanding, the insular nature of relationship development in the current smartphone era runs counter to the proclamations of enthusiasts extolling their anticipation that our screens (first the television and now our phones, laptops, and tablets) will usher in an era of global interconnectedness and understanding. 

Given how the world is evolving, it’s clear that we need to question this digitally-induced insularity, come out of the dark, pixel-glowing corners of our homes, and. Just. Interact. The future of humanity depends on it. 

I’m curious: How has your approach to developing friendships changed vis-à-vis your devices? Have you observed how this shift has influenced your family relationships? Tell us about it in the comments.