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Creating Meaningful Connections

About a month ago, I got the chance to travel to Cuba. After having experienced everything there, I have to admit that the country is almost exactly as most people imagine it – famous vintage cars, endless salsa dancing, rich culture, and yes, insane affinities for Cuban cigars and rum. One area I don't think outsiders put much thought towards, however, is the lack of internet access in all of Cuba. The country is still developing, and as a result, there are only about 13 places to get access to internet across the entire island!

The fact that internet was non-existent led me to make some interesting observations in my time there. First, I noticed that nobody spent an excessive amount of time on their phones or electronic devices. After all, what could they really do without internet? Most electronic device usage seems to revolve around the internet. Secondly, and more importantly, I noticed that every single family I stayed with would sit together at night and have hours of face-to-face time with each other, establishing meaningful relationships. This idea of face-to-face time is something that is fading away in the Western world today.

In fact, according to recent studies by Attentiv and CNBC, millennials are sending out more text messages and spending more time than ever on social media platforms communicating with each other, but talking at an extreme minimum in person (besides in the workplace, where millennials seem to prefer face-to-face conversations).

Is there a correlation between electronic device/internet usage and how much face-to-face time we spend with each other? After my Cuban adventure, this is what I decided to find out…and as I suspected, there is indeed a connection. Before analyzing the link, though, I found it important to first understand the growth of both electronic devices and the internet. According to the 2013 United States Census, 84% of households report owning a computer. Approximately 75% of all American households have access to the internet as well. This latter number was at a mere 18% when the government originally started including internet usage questions in its 1998 census.

Thus, there has been a drastic increase in both electronic device and internet usage over the years. In fact, as of 2013, about 90% of Americans report owning a cell phone, while for people under the age of 44, that number is closer to 97%. The younger generation accounts for some of the highest internet usage, with teenagers spending more than an average of 27 hours a week just online.

With this background information, I decided to explore how internet usage specifically affects face-to-face communication. I started off by surveying 100 random respondents in Boston, Massachusetts. All 100 people I surveyed owned either a cellphone or tablet, with approximately 55% saying that they spent more than four hours per day on that device (much of which time they reported to be on the internet). About 15% of respondents even confessed to using their cellphones and tablets to access the internet for more than eight hours a day.

The most important questions from the survey in my opinion, however, were:

1. Do you believe that the presence of technology (including the internet), while spending time with other people, affects face-to-face communication negatively?

2. Do you notice a degradation in the quality of your conversations amongst the presence of technology (including the internet)?

The responses pointed towards a clear consensus. For the first question, about 90% of respondents felt that the presence of technology (including the internet) negatively affected face-to-face communication, while 5% felt it did not, and 5% were unsure. In regards to the second question, about 80% felt there was indeed a degradation in the quality of their conversations with technology, while 13% did not think so, and 7% were unsure. The 13% that did not believe there was a degradation in their conversations with technology felt that electronic devices often instead stimulated their conversations (being able to look up certain topics on the internet to supplement a conversation, etc.).

In addition to the survey questions, I also observed many of the respondents to see how they acted around others when using their phones and on the internet. There were a few moments that stuck out. Once, I noticed two people accessing social media on their phones, while eating lunch across a table from each other. They sat in silence, paying no attention to each others’ presence. On another instance, I saw a person using his phone to Skype. As he was Skyping, one of his friends walked by and greeted him, only to be ignored. I’m sure many of us have witnessed similar such occasions.

So, from the responses and observations above, it does in fact seem to be true that electronic device and internet usage is negatively affecting face-to-face time today; but what does this actually mean? And what should we do about it?

Just to be clear, I am in no way telling you to stop using your electronic devices altogether or cut off every possible connection from the internet. What I am suggesting, however, is that maybe we should consider limiting non-productive electronic device and internet usage. While Cuba may lag behind modern times when it comes to technological infrastructure, it seems to be years ahead when it comes to face-to-face communication and establishing meaningful relationships. It’s possible, after all, to learn something from everybody in this world. Maybe we can learn the beauty of what a little time away from our electronics/internet can do, courtesy of the Cubans.

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