Recently, while at my local bookstore, I stumbled upon Kim Stolz’s Unfriending My Ex (Scribner, 2014) -- a particularly relevant read given our hyper-connected, social media-centric times. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Stolz herself. Read on to see what she had to say about social media and our use of it, the effects it has had on us as a society, as well as what we can do to live a healthier, more balanced life.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): First off, when I read your book I just found it so relevant to today, especially with so many people on social media — many with multiple accounts — particularly when you consider this sort of rush to embrace new technology and little consideration of any sort of negative impact it may have. It seems to me that new technologies are almost always seen as these kinds of signs of progress, but at the same time — if you just dig a little deeper — are sometimes not all they’re cracked up to be. For starters, you touch on how though it seems that virtually everyone is tethered to their smartphones, many seem to use these sorts of negative terms to describe their relationship to these devices. For instance, you say in your book that 60 percent of people feel anxiety or stress from using their smartphones, yet feel compelled to keep it because of this fear of being ‘disconnected’ and missing out or else they like that little rush they get when someone likes a Facebook post or retweets something.
Kim Stolz (KS): Right. There’s that little dopamine fix we get from someone following us or someone liking something or adding us as a friend. You are getting that rush, so no matter how it affects our lives negatively, we still want it.
AD: And — speaking of those negative effects — delving further into your book and into the research that you refer to, you mention that, with some, this sort of addiction to the Internet has become such an issue that they’re actually considering adding certain conditions like ‘Internet Compulsion Disorder’ to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
KS: Right. There are a bunch of emerging bodies of research that want to add certain disorders — like Internet Addiction or Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder. These are all terms for things that people are looking at and trying to decide if they really are valid enough to be added to a real technical body of research.
AD: Aside from these push and pull or love-hate relationships to the devices themselves, the other thing that you just touched on — Acquired Attention Deficit Disorder — is something that I found a bit surprising myself. Basically, the idea is that the disorder stems, in a way, from the use of these devices themselves — or, I should say, the excessive use or abuse of these devices. For instance, you cite an example of how teachers have found themselves reading to students because they seemingly cannot concentrate long enough to read 20 pages of a chapter.
KS: Right. It’s surprising until you think about the constant stimulus we’re getting from these things. We’re just constantly inundated with more and more information. It becomes very hard to keep a real focus on any one thing, because you’re so used to being distracted — being pulled from one thing to the next almost constantly. We don’t have the ability to focus on one thing anymore, because throughout so much of our day, our brains are having to multitask and you get used to it.
AD: And, in a certain sense, multitasking itself is sort of a myth. It’s great, in theory, but it doesn’t really add up in practice. A lot of people think that they truly can multitask and, in doing so, are more productive. Yet, there seems to be mounting evidence — as you kind of point out — that’s not always true.
KS: I think that we, as humans, believe we can multitask, but our brains are not actually trained to do that. This is why your mom told you not to watch TV while you did your homework. This is why people should not text and drive. This is why you’re not supposed to be on your social media at work. We, as humans, really aren’t good at multitasking.
AD: Right. Even in the context of the workplace, you could very well be hurting your own productivity.
KS: But you do also have to recognize the difference. I feel that, with my job, I do have to multitask, but I’m doing very productive things. If you’re on social media and you’re multitasking between that and a real conversation, those are two different things that can’t really fit together.
AD: The other thing that I found surprising is this connection between social media and the pronounced decrease in empathy that is being seen, which you cite.
KS: I think it’s so interesting. We’re seeing so many different things on our feeds — some that are really great and some that are really bad, some are exciting and some are boring — but we continue to scroll, regardless of what we’re seeing. I think that part of what is decreasing our level of empathy is that we’re not really absorbing what we’re reading and what we’re hearing. The other side of it is that I think there is this sort of feeling when you’re on social media or texting on a device is that there’s not really a living, breathing, feeling person on the other end. It’s very hard to imagine that person — like when you’re having a fight and you’re just typing at someone, for instance. I think that it is a big thing right now. If you can’t look into someone’s eyes and see how the other person is feeling, it’s very hard to have a serious conversation. You’re not truly engaging with that person. You’re engaging with your phone.
AD: In keeping with that idea, you also talk a bit about how social media can and does impact romantic relationships. As you say, it used to be that after a break-up it was possible for two people to go their separate ways. Now with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like, that ex is much more present than ever before.
KS: Right. There’s a real indelibility of relationships now, because whether you have mutual friends or stay friends with them online — whatever it is — when you break up you’re constantly inundated with information about their life, what they’re doing, where they are, who they’re dating and who their friends are.
AD: And, as you say, that indelibility — when it comes to exes, anyway — can really damage your current relationship, if you allow it to.
KS: Exactly. People always ask me about the etiquette of social media, and the truth is there is no etiquette of social media. Different things work differently for different people. When you get into a serious relationship with someone, there is a real need to have a conversation beforehand. You can have a conversation about what you’re okay with and what you’re not. Everyone has different rules and different things that work for them, and you just need to have that conversation first, with no gray area to get you into fights later.
AD: It seems to me that what it really just boils down to is learning to use social media intelligently. Obviously, from a practical standpoint, one can’t just reject all social media or electronic communication — nor would I want to, personally — so what do you recommend one should do?
KS: It’s about knowing yourself. This is why I tell people to do a digital detox. When you do, you much more clearly recognize the parts of yourself that have been most affected by social media. When you do that, you kind of find out personally which parts of your life are really better off left without social media, or the things you've been doing on social media that may have been detrimental to your life. Certainly, rejecting it altogether is not going to work for anyone in this day and age. You can make some choices. You can kind of pick and choose when you cut down your use.
AD: I completely agree with you, and I just feel that all of this — and your book as a whole, for that matter — just reinforces the need to be more thoughtful in our use of technology overall.
KS: Yeah. If you do a digital detox, you are really able to pinpoint the parts of your life that have been changed the most, then decide which of those parts you want to keep that way, and in which parts of your life you find it actually makes you a little bit less connected.
Kim Stolz is a former contestant on America’s Next Top Model, MTV news anchor and current vice president of equity derivatives at Citigroup. She is a graduate of the Brearley School and Wesleyan University. In 2012, she was named one of the 100 Most Compelling People of the Year by Out magazine. She lives in New York City. For additional information please visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.