01/07/2013 11:34 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

From Face-to-Face to Facebook

One year ago, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote an article for The Economist where she, unsurprisingly, extolled the benefits of Facebook and social media, pointing to the realms of our lives where it has brought us together: political rallies, online philanthropy, the sharing of photos, videos and other information with the people we care about. She then declared that "The science-fiction writers of the last century envisioned a world where modernity led to alienation. In fact, the opposite has occurred."

Sandberg's treatise is not supported by a recent study conducted by sociology professor Matthew Brashears of Cornell University, who asked 2,000 adults the number of friends with whom they could discuss "important matters." The average response was 2.03, down from a similar study conducted just before the widespread use of the Internet and social networks in 1985, which yielded an average response of three close friends.

This news is not entirely new, it turns out. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting a General Social Survey of 1,400 American adults since 1972, compared responses from 1985 to 2004 and discovered that, on average, each person had 2.94 close friends with whom they could discuss important matters in 1985, and by 2004 their number of close confidantes had decreased to 2.08. In the Chicago study, people who responded that they had no one with whom to discuss important matters more than doubled during this period, to nearly 25 percent.

If it is indeed true, as these surveys suggest, that we have, on average, lost 30 percent of our close friends in only two decades, then these surveys signal a shift toward social isolation that is disconcerting and must be addressed. Yet we must first accept the sobering reality of our lives today: computers, the Internet and social media are here to stay. To argue against their utility would be as futile as railing against the existence of any new technology that gained widespread usage quickly, such as the typewriter in the 1870s or the telephone or television in the 1920s.

Almost a century later, the computer -- whether in desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone form -- is all of the above inventions wrapped up into one unprecedentedly addictive little package. Many of us have become like a child taking up residence in a candy shop, over-indulging in a novelty we never thought we would be able to avail ourselves of: even two decades ago it would have been unthinkable to access a video or even written information about just about anything we can imagine within seconds.

To help you understand the significance of this historic moment, let's take a look at another mass invention no one had dreamed of until it arrived. When Henry Ford developed an automobile that "the common man" could afford in 1908, his invention generated the nationwide development of highways, suburbs, drive-thru restaurants and many other amenities for the recently mobile. After the car was invented, people sought any reason to be in one, making any excuse to go for a drive. It was all the rage, for example, to go to drive-in theaters. After many decades, people decided that they really didn't need to be in their cars while watching a movie, and drive-in theaters faded into obscurity. We are undergoing a similar acculturation with a new technology, and our current obsession with digital gadgets will, like our propensity to jump into our cars at the drop of a hat, not disappear, but normalize to a more manageable level.

Yet until we are able to step out of the candy store, my concern is that, for a generation of people, our experience of real life is being poignantly compromised. As the studies indicate, never in human history have we been in contact with so many people and connected with so few. People who, like the Facebook COO, claim that we have never been so connected with each other are missing a vital point: the people making all these "connections" through the Internet and social media are, in the non-virtual plane sometimes referred to as "reality," sitting alone in front of a pixilated screen typing about what they enjoy rather than looking into the eyes of a human being and actually doing it.

I am a leadership and life coach, and at a recent conference I asked 300 people to share what they had done over the previous month that had most contributed to their happiness. There were about 30 responses -- ranging from "spending time with my daughter," and "going dancing" to "going for a long hike in the mountains" -- not one of which involved time spent online.

Yet if computers, the Internet, and social media are here to stay -- and, like the automobile or any other innovation that has significantly increased efficiency for the masses at an affordable price, they are -- then the million-dollar question is "What can we do to recover our friendships and our happiness in this uber-technology age?" Each of us must come up with our own solutions. Whatever your solution, to be effective it must center around one principle: You must control technology, not the other way around.

Your laptop, iPad or cell-phone is merely a tool. An addictively fun little tool, yes; yet still just a tool. The critical challenge in the third millennium is the same as in the first: to develop a vision for how you want to live your life. How does your best version of yourself desire you to spend your time from day-to-day? How does it want you to act toward the people you care about? What does it want you to be remembered for?

Whatever emanates from this self-dialogue is how you should be spending your time. If you can use your clever online tools to achieve some of your most important life goals, then by all means do so. Yet every other moment you spend on your iPad, smart phone or laptop is as beneficial to your life as getting into your car and putting the pedal to the metal without a destination.

Never before in human history have we had so much power at our fingertips; so much power, in fact, that most of us are unable to harness it, and instead sit (enrapt, eyes glazed over, hunched over a screen) under its thrall. The ability to bring this power -- a tremendous opportunity to access information, entertainment and other people that none of us would have ever dreamed possible even a few decades ago -- into our control without allowing it to control us is the new make-or-break skill for a life of happiness in the third millennium.