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Brian Harke Ed.D. Headshot

Is Social Media Making Us Anti-Social?

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Like most of you, I have experienced and/or studied the trends of emerging technology and social media. I have first hand experience with their effects on education, business, politics, and society. It's striking how quickly we have embraced and adapted to new technology and social media. They've changed our world in ways too numerous to count. Unfortunately, those changes are not always for the better.

Amid all the buzz and innovation, very few experts have taken a step back to look at how social media and technology are changing us. In spite of all the positive ways they helps us connect, they also have a way of cheating us out of more complete experiences.

This subject is too big to cover in one article, so I will be discussing it over several installments in the coming weeks. You can read them at my website http://brianharke.com. This particular article will focus on cellular technology and its affect on how we treat each other. It will also propose some ground rules on what we should consider respectful use.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a dinner party hosted by a professor. The table was beautiful and food was delicious, however I left the dinner feeling very irritated. The thorn sticking in my side was a result of one of the guest's (a student) manners and how he interacted with the other dinner party guests and his cell phone.

The first clue of a potential issue came when I saw him place his phone on the table next to his plate. I have yet to meet anyone who is so important that they need to place his/her phone on the table. I remember people doing this years and years ago when cell phones first came out. It was their way of letting others know that they were trendsetters (but it read more like they wanted people to think they were important). Does anyone really need to display his or her cell phone like a piece of fine china at dinner? I think not.

As the student's phone sat next to his plate, it began to buzz with new emails and text messages. This continued throughout the meal and at one point he even took and placed calls. We got to see his latest headshots via the phone and hear about his new apps. He even Tweeted what he was eating. Really? Forget the meal that the host prepared or the conversation we could have had, dinner became an exercise of what was going on in another world. A world that was occurring outside of the immediate dinning room. One that I was dragged into because the student just didn't get it.

In short, he wasn't present. Since he wasn't present and was not aware of his impact, he didn't recognize that he was being rude. He wasn't aware enough to see that he was making a bad impression and being disrespectful. I'm sure it never occurred to him.

Definition: For this article I will use the term "present" to describe those moments when a person is fully engaged in the current situation. They have empathy and respect for those around them. They are not distracted, and are aware of their actions.

Many of you may be saying, "why didn't you just tell him to put the phone away"? Oh, if it were only that easy. We tried in a polite way to point out the distraction, but the situation, like many others, was such that bluntness was not acceptable. He was too caught up in another world to hear or read the clues that we gave him. As a result, he missed out on good conversation and more importantly, the opportunity to make a good impression on instructors and business professionals. This is something he will never be able to get back. First impressions are lasting.

Being present has become a notable problem as social media and new technology have evolved. It is my observation that when we become intertwined with technology or things like social media, we become hypnotized and fall into a techno trance where things like common sense, manners and awareness often get pushed aside. We end up doing things without considering the repercussions, and behaving in ways that disregard the world around us. It's as if an electronic curtain closes around us and all else fades away.

The truth is that once we come out from behind the curtain and we come back to the present, previous actions and behaviors follow us. There are always repercussions. Ask the congressman from New York if he was present when he tweeted the crotch shot of himself to a female follower. I will bet he'd say that he wasn't thinking. He got caught up in the techno trance just as the student at the dinner party did.

The experience at the dinner party is not unique. I've sat through meetings where student leaders are constantly checking emails and texting during presentations. I've been in classes where instructors are giving lectures and students are updating their Facebook status, texting friends, and Tweeting. I've almost been run over by students on bicycles that were too busy talking on their cell phone instead of watching where they were peddling. One such student had the nerve to actually get mad at ME for getting in her way. No kidding. I don't know how many people I've seen walking head down, entranced in their text message, who end up tripping, walking into things, or entering an intersection without looking. I'm sure if you think about it, you will recall similar instances when people are on their phones or texting and forget to be present. Check out the video here for a great and funny example.

Here's the point: most of us were raised with a particular sense of manners, kindness, empathy, and respect for others. We were taught to be present in the moment out of courtesy to those we are with (it is called paying attention). Somehow many of us (me included) have allowed this rush of new technology to push aside the present moment, along with many of the manners we were taught at an early age.

Why should it matter to you? Being present is one of the greatest skill sets you can master. If you read about or follow any of the great leaders in life and business, you will find that their ability be present and focus on matters at hand has led to their success. In the short term, being present will help you as a student to do better in class, develop better relationships, and make great first impressions on instructors and people who will help you develop your professional network to find a job.

In the long term, mastering the ability to remain present could help you be more focused, successful, and even healthy.

My hope in writing this article was to create awareness in you about the idea of being present and its importance. It may not change you or how society establishes etiquette and norms about how to interact with social media and technology, but I do hope you will give it some thought.

What I offer below is some advice from several of my colleagues in academia and the business world about how to utilize technology in a way that will help you be present to make better first impressions on people and those who will hire you.

Feel free to add to the list in the comment section below or visit my website at brianharke.com if you need additional space.

In no particular order:

1. Turn off your phone in job interviews and meetings. Don't pull it out, check it or allow it to vibrate or ring during the interview.
2. Don't put your phone (or elbows) on the table. If your phone is in sight, you are likely to check it.
3. Pay attention to whomever is speaking. Don't text or surf the Internet. It is rude and will be perceived that way.
4. Don't think you can hide the fact that you are texting or surfing the Internet. It is obvious to everyone around you.
5. Don't ever post or email anything that wouldn't make your mom proud if she saw it printed on the front page of your local newspaper.
Corollary: Once you put it out on the Internet, it's there forever. Don't live to regret what you've posted.
6. Take the call outside. No one wants to hear your conversation.
7. Get your head out of the web. You need to spend face-to-face time with people. You don't gain social skills by hiding behind a keyboard.
8. OMG, BTW don't use text shortcuts when speaking to others. You take the risk of sounding like an idiot.
9. Get out of the mindset that you need to respond to texts and emails right away. There is rarely anything so urgent that you have to reply the moment you receive a message. Slow the cycle down. If you do so, you'll probably find your response will be more thoughtful.
10. Don't get upset if you don't hear back from someone you're trying to reach right away. Don't call and call, or continue to re-text, or email. It is rude.
11. Consider the time of day when you send text messages. Don't wake people up by having their phone chime in the middle of the night.
12. Never text, email, or call if you have been out partying. It is very easy to send messages you'll regret and too often they wind up being sent to the wrong person.
13. Turn off your phone from time to time and relax. I bet you will find this the hardest tip of all. I have.

Good luck.