How has the mobile device in our pocket changed our lives? Are the changes positive or negative? If you ask different people, you are likely to get different answers. Even with the same people, their opinions may vary under different circumstances.

I love communicating with my daughters via IM and Facebook. Even though they are hundreds of miles away, I feel we are constantly connected. Monday afternoon after I got into the taxi for a business trip, I sent my girls a message, “On my way to Atlanta!” Within a few seconds, Michelle texted back, “Good luck mamma!” And Jane’s well wish came a little bit later. I texted Joe when I found out my flight was delayed, and he was the first one to know the minute I landed. Nowadays I am connected with my folks in China, my cousins in Australia and Singapore, my brother- and sister-in-law in New Jersey, and my high school alumni all over the world via WeChat. WeChat allows you to set up different chat groups with different people, post news and pictures, and leave voice messages for your friends. I like it much better than Facebook since access to Facebook is blocked in China.

All this sounds great, right? Not so fast. The new way of digital connection doesn’t come without a cost. Have you ever seen families dining at restaurants, instead of talking to one another, each person is looking down at or typing on his or her phone (I know my family does that sometimes)? They are together but not really together. People text or email during corporate board meetings or even at funerals to distance themselves from the grief surrounding them. I know if I choose to, I can be chatting on my phone all day long, totally oblivious to what’s going on around me.

In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation. It allows us to edit and customize our lives, as well as hide from each other even when we appear to be constantly connected. According to Turkle, the social media offers us three gratifying fantasies:
1) Control – put our attention where we want it to be
2) Voice – always be heard
3) Companionship – never have to be alone

“Human relationships are enriching, but at the same time are messy and demanding. We clean it up with technology. Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. In the process, we set ourselves up for isolation.” Growing up in the digital world, young people today are uncomfortable and unequipped to handle solitude. Solitude is where you find yourself. The plugged-in life is taking that away that from us because we constantly turn to others to feel alive and avoid being alone.

Digital technology is expanding our lives in unimaginable ways but it can also take us to places we don’t want to be. Nothing can replace real human conversations. It’s important to unplug and look your child in the eye when he is trying to tell you something exciting that happened at school, or have an engaged conversation with your family at dinner time, or share with your partner your complicated feelings about something.

Stefana Broadbent’s researches show that even though we may be connected with thousands of people online, we are only deeply attached to a handful of friends. Make sure you spend adequate face-to-face time with them, and try to be together not only physically but also emotionally.

In Broadbent’s opinion, communication technology doesn’t have to spoil human intimacy. In fact it is capable of cultivating deeper relationships, bringing love and across barriers like distance and workplace rules. Being aware of the pitfalls is key to maintaining self-aware relationships with the devices and with ourselves.