Want to be alone? Well, you're in luck

In the online age, conversation is about quality, not quantity, argues Rhodri Marsden

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The Independent Online

Call me a cynic, but the phrase "worrying trend" seems inherently dubious to me. Setting aside the fact that a mere three or four incidences of something can be termed a trend, you've got the more nebulous question of exactly who is doing the worrying. This week we're supposed to fret about the "digitally dominant" – a "significant" group of people who mainly communicate via text, email and video and, as a result, can go "up to" 48 hours without speaking to someone in person.

From this we are supposed to extrapolate the death of society, as one by one we retreat to our bedrooms, deriving all the pleasure we require from top-selling iPhone app Keith Lemon's Mouthboard.

These studies are unleashed from time to time, and many seem to place a preposterous emphasis on the supposed value of having low-quality social interaction on high streets with people we don't know. We're told a "digitally dominant" person is four times less likely to go out to buy food, preferring to order it online and thus contributing to the worrying trend – but this could have been avoided if they'd had an inconsequential chat about the weather with a supermarket cashier.

Teenagers shunning phone calls in favour of text messages are regularly deemed to present a similar problem to society, but no one ever praises the way this social efficiency frees up extra time to do whatever it is teenagers do – like arranging to meet other teenagers.

Once again the internet is blamed for a decline in social interaction. This is a place (albeit virtual) where like-minded people can be easily found, where exchanges are usually more meaningful than ones you'd have with a chap at the shoe repair shop, and where real-life relationships begin.

This week I'll meet a dozen or more people who I wouldn't know if it wasn't for the internet – and yes, I know this is purely anecdotal, but studies that criticise the impact of technology on society are, too.

The social impact of technology on the digitally dominant, the digitally deft or digitally deaf is something we're still trying to work out. We don't know. But the studies roll out, regardless, claiming to provide some kind of measurement of solitude. You wouldn't get a news report saying 3 per cent of people don't get out much, but it seems that if they're using laptops, we need to worry.

The crucial question that's rarely asked in such studies is "And are you happy?" Some people might be, some might not, but they are quietly getting on with doing what they want to do. And the fact that that might be deemed a worrying trend is, in itself, a worrying trend.