Several books recently inspired a weird thought of mine: that with the increasing use of social networks for leisurely/personal activities, our emotional efforts toward the other fellow human become affected the way laxatives affect the gut on the long run.

And by ‘affect’, I don’t mean cleansing.
I’m referring to the way laxatives can turn fairly healthy intestines into chronically lethargic organs that wait on external intrusion to activate their otherwise self-governing process.

I don’t mean to talk about gastric and other ventral paraphernalia, but about how our physical and emotional efforts in building, maintaining and cultivating personal relationships with others (intimate or otherwise) become lethargic the more we use online social networks.

Sherry Turkle puts it much better in her book Alone Together: we witness “the emotional dumbing down, a wilful turning away from the complexities of human partnerships” because the digital connections “and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”.
In other words, through the means of the social networks, we gain an emotional satisfaction from having company, without the demands of too much effort.
Or, for the constipated to understand – you use a laxative and, several minutes later, celebrate in the loo, without having to exhaust yourself from pushing naturally.

Social networks – their precursors and derivatives (video games, Second Life, online pets/kids)- seem to do an excellent job in providing companionship against loneliness, just like laxatives provide the excellent job of loosening up a constipation.

1) They (social networks, not laxatives) rescue us from loneliness – we’re connected to so many people, well-known, fairly-known and total strangers.

  • Yet, we may well be in a room with physically-present relatives and siblings, ignoring them completely because…we’re on the computer.

2) Social networks encourage us to overcome our shyness – we are not as shy online, or when texting and posting only the ‘cool’ images of where we were, what we wore and where we partied. We ‘sound’, ‘look’, and ‘act’ differently on the social network with those others with whom we otherwise may have been very shy to even say ‘hello’ to.

  • Yet, our confidence online is neither a prerequisite, nor a rehearsal to better communication and appearance offline.

3) Social networks provide individual control over how much we want to get out of the emotional experience online unlike relationships offline.
Once we’ve had enough, we can shut down and go away from the computer. We can get onto other business (unlike, if we’re living and sharing space with someone intimately).
Social networks allow us to become master of our relations and its only benefactor.
No one fusses over how much we’ve given into the relation.
No one nags.
No one demands of us to be more emotionally available.
Because that other person isn’t with us physically.

Where can social laxatives = social networks take us, then?

To start off with, how does the laxative work?
The laxative works by inducing bowel movement, then follows the urge and releases the person from constipation.
But not an uncommon solution to constipation, much less so – the effect.
It gets grosser if we translate the simile.
In the case with the emotional constipation: when we feel lonely, unsatisfied with a specific relationship, or with relationships in general, we want something to spur our inner clutter,  rev up the dulness, and reassure us that things aren’t as bad. We loosen up on the internet because we feel anonymous, protected and at a distance we decide on; we can peak secretively; we can exaggerate and create second images of ourselves; we can boast.
All this ‘freedom’ excites us, enlivens us.
The constipation is gone.
And it didn’t require sweat for preparation or nervous breakdowns.
Most of all, it didn’t hurt.
It didn’t disappoint.
It didn’t demand us to do anything more than what we were only ready to give.
The answer to the bold question above is that we find a quick fix and it relieves us.
As Professor Turkle says, social robotics, technology, can work therapeutically.
But as laxatives – never take it for over a week, then, consult a doctor.

There will be long-term consequences to increased use of social networks.
In fact, a recent research done by John Cacioppo, reveals that the prolonged stay on Facebook and other social networks increased social isolation.
The consequences are inevitable.
And I don’t think they’ll be very healthy to our ’emotional gut’.
To say nothing of the emotional ‘gut’ of 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds.
For the younger ones, it is probably even worse.
To return to the intestines analogy:
We wouldn’t give a teenager laxatives for a silly constipation (unless it’s a serious diagnosis), would we?
We’d rather they learned the natural way – which takes time, discipline, acquiring habits, learning.
Why, then, would we adults, teenagers, or kids expect that we could learn about and reach emotional depth and satisfaction from social networks?

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