Is a decline in face-to-face contact leading to a decline in our well-being?

Rhodri Marsden feels that email, text and social media keep him sufficiently connected but still treasures his chats with the DHL guy

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The Independent Tech

I'm writing this on Wednesday lunchtime. The only face-to-face interaction I've had since Sunday is a 30-minute appointment with a physiotherapist who diagnosed me with tennis elbow.

I'm not complaining; in many ways I'm lucky that I can do most of my work from home, and over the years I've chosen to continue doing so, figuring that the wealth of electronic communication available to me – email, text, social media – keeps me sufficiently connected with others for me to feel vaguely human. But when the workload grows, I certainly feel that absence of real interaction, and I know from experience that it can't be assuaged by having a stilted chat with a DHL delivery guy.

Two Italian academics unveiled the results of a study this week that found a strong correlation between a decline in face-to-face contact and a decline in our well-being. Engaging with people face-to-face, they say, has a deep and profound effect upon us that's related to our status as a social species. Social media, it appears, isn't that social at all, coming in for particular criticism for its "insidious negative effects".

When I read this I felt strangely defensive of modern communication. After all, we negotiate its limitations pretty well, don't we? We've found ways of expressing sincerity, honesty and other emotions that would normally be conveyed by tone of voice or facial muscles. Then again, you only need to look at Twitter for 10 minutes to be reminded that misunderstandings are endemic, and many of them simply wouldn't happen in a face-to-face situation.

Electronic communication by text has come in for all kinds of criticism this week. A chiropractic physician voiced his fears over the increased incidence of what he terms "Text Neck", a condition where the practise of hunching over a phone is resulting in the first few bones of our cervical spine bending forward in an unusual way. Then there were arguments over a study into whether instant messaging has a pernicious effect upon children's spelling and grammar skills; the study found that this was absolutely not the case, but many still equate the use of shortcuts, emoji and abbreviations to be causing untold damage to our brains.

Then, in the New York Times, writer Jessica Bennett explored the anxiety related to the "typing awareness indicator", the ellipsis

("…") that messaging apps display to tell you that a reply is imminent. We can spend endless empty moments staring at that indicator, knowing that someone is thinking about us but not knowing precisely what, and in many ways that behaviour is indicative of our need for synchronous, real-time interaction – the kind that face-to-face communication, by its very nature, provides.

And then, riding to the rescue, came film director and actor Miranda July with an idea to transform the impersonal into the physical. She's just launched an app called "Somebody", which allows you to send a message which is then delivered in person by a messenger who happens to be in the same area as the recipient. You can volunteer to become a messenger, too. It may fall short of modern standards of efficiency, but she reassures us: "Unpredictable, undocumented, fleeting interactions with strangers can bring great joy and inspiration!"

She's probably right. Perhaps it's time for me to leave the house and make some of those fleeting interactions happen.

Twitter.com/rhodri

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