#Love: Hacking Social Isolation

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. For professional inquiries, visit her website here

The evolution of technology into our everyday lives is allowing us to do things more efficiently than ever. The act of finding, experiencing and ending relationships is all now widely available at the touch of a finger to a screen. For many of us, that’s a good (if not great!) thing. We enjoy curbing at least some of our social needs with the app(s) of our choice. We feel socially connected scrolling through people’s blogs, tweets, updates, photos, comments and texts.

Online engagement gives us a chance to be creative, indulge our interests, explore new tech developments, and interact with people in ways we don’t in real life. We appreciate how technology lets us avoid awkward first encounters, sidestep uncomfortable topics, and avoid people’s reactions. Want to end a connection that’s taken a turn for the worse? A response isn’t even necessary- voila! No response says it all.

Tech developers profit on people’s desire for new, lightweight ways to communicate. The new million dollar app YO lets users communicate the same generic ‘yo’ message to anyone, leaving it up the receiver to infer meaning. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s book, “Alone Together” explores the ways online social networks and texting culture are changing how people relate to society, their family and friends. Turkle maintains that people who spend the majority of their time online are more isolated than ever in their non-virtual lives, leading to emotional disconnection, depression and anxiety.

As a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area work, I work with generation Y folks struggling with how to navigate face-to-face social interactions, and manage feelings of confusion and insecurity in response to their ephemeral online relationships. The trend of avoiding the emotional risk associated with live encounters has become wide-spread.

Jason, age 25, in treatment for mild depression and social anxiety speculates “why would I want to go outside and try to meet random people that will most definitely reject me? Nobody talks to anyone in person these days, not even the people they DO know and like already. I have a better chance of meeting new people from my couch with my iPhone. Plus, my Netflix queue won’t watch itself you know.”

Natalie, age 27, in treatment for panic disorder, struggles to manage her symptoms in response to dating, both on and offline. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to think when the guy I’m dating is ‘online now’ whenever I check his profile on the site where we met. When we’re actually together I can’t stop thinking about it, and it’s totally undermining my confidence. I feel like a loser for checking and there’s no way in hell I’m going to ask him about it.”

So what can we do when it feels impossible to meet people offline, or enjoy actual, in person experiences together?

Stop measuring people in real life against ‘online profiles’. People use carefully selected profile pics and behave differently online, showing others only a fraction of who they actually are in real life. Accept that difference, and learn to appreciate the wholeness of real people. Whole people are the foundation and currency of real intimacy and lasting relationships, not online profiles.

Constantly engaging with your social networks means your energy and attention are spent ‘performing your profiles’ instead of experiencing real life. Even if you have a popular profile with tons of views, it’s not your profile that feels lonely and bored, it’s YOU. Start paying more attention to your life offline, invest in real time activities and the people around you for the purpose of enjoyment rather than the chance to ‘share it’ online. It’s going to feel uncomfortable or unnatural at times, and that’s normal and healthy.

Stay in touch with your physical surroundings. When your eyes are constantly glued to your screen and your ears are filled with earbuds, you’re missing out on the subtle cues around you that could lead to opportunities to connect in person. They are there. A first smile, a second glance, or someone who’s come in close proximity for a brief conversation waiting to happen are all opportunities to build your social world.

Still feel clueless about how to talk to strangers? Watch others who initiate and sustain conversation and make acquaintances with people around them. Consider using a few of the techniques they use. Comfort and confidence comes with real-life practice. Small steps helps take the edge off the anxiety you’ll feel from taking interpersonal risks. No one dies from feeling awkward, it just feels like it.

Accept the harsh reality that anyone you get involved with in real life may decide they aren’t interested in sustaining that relationship, even if you are. Deciding you don’t want to first, as a way to avoid the sting of that rejection won’t help you increase intimacy, it will only keep you isolated. Caring less can feel like a contest. Winning at it is actually losing a chance at real intimacy.

Accept more social invitations than you turn down, even if it cuts into your ‘online time.’ I promise, the internet will be there when you get home. Appreciate the difference between ‘missing out’ on what’s happening online versus ‘missing out’ on real life experiences.

Friendships, either romantic or platonic take time to grow in real life. Pay attention to the pace that other people are opening up to you in real life and try to match them. While feeling vulnerable and at risk for being judged can be hard to tolerate, being preoccupied with your own feelings can prevent you from connecting with others.

Choose activities you enjoy and engage in them as routinely as possible in group settings. You’re more likely to build friendships with people you come into contact with regularly. Starting and sustaining conversations with them in person becomes easier when you’re sharing a mutual experience.

Try not to make assumptions about a person’s online activities if they are inconsistent with how they present in person. It’s incredibly easy to jump to conclusions about a person’s intentions when online communication is vague, and time stamps, online activity and other evidence are all visible for the world to see. If there are inconsistencies that you are worried about, be patient. Sooner or later you’ll have more information, and will see patterns that can help you make a decision about investing more time and energy in an offline relationship.

#Love is a new column on TechCrunch dealing with digital matters of the heart. It explores our relationships, their relationship with technology, and all the gory details that come with it. Jordan Crook will be leading the charge, and is looking for guest writers to tell their own stories each week. Maybe you found your soul mate on Tinder, or got dumped on Facebook, or have an outrageously interesting sext life. We all have our stories. If you’re interested in contributing, send an email to jordan@beta.techcrunch.com with the subject line #Love for more details.