Fragmentation of
the Modern Mind

How the connection among
people is breaking down

Almost continual media consumption, living alone, ever less real face to face human contact, is, I fear, leaving us shattered and shaking, far from the grounded, loving selves we seek to be — and, as I see it, far from what God means us to be.
The bottom line, according to the US Census of 2006, the thing that American do more than any other, more than work, is to consume media (though I don't think they're counting sleep). It clearly is the dominant thing in our lives, and in our culture.
One in four adult Americans live alone.
I read that a Sunday New York Times gives you more new information than a typical person in the 18th century got in their entire life. So things really are speeding up.
From my industry, videogames, a survey was done some years ago by a game magazine, where they asked who was the most attractive woman in the world — and the winner was not a real woman. It was the Tomb Raider gal (played by Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider movie, but they were talking about the character in the game). The woman they liked best was a pixelized fake.
What about a video screen on your toothbrush (don't laugh).
It's been predicted by the Gartner (research) Group that "by 2010, 70% of the population in developed countries will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the online world than in the physical one…" As we forget what a real woman and a real friend feels like, don't we step into a shadowy replica of life?
Electronic coldness doesn't get much worse than dumping a boyfriend or girlfriend via texting — and then of course immediately blocking them from your cell phone and de-friending them on Facebook.
For me, the very fact that there's a word like ‘parasocial' is totally creepy. (meaning "relationships" with celebrities)
Maybe it's just too hard to make personal, face to face relationships. Are we giving up, just laying back and popping in the iPod ear buds — while your spouse does the same beside you in bed, as my wife accused me of doing the other evening. Are we irreversibly headed down the slippery slope?
Facebook and the myriad other social sites are meant to be personal, and compared to plain email I'd say they're almost cozy — with pictures of friends and family, and little personal notes about whatever's going on.
Back to the big picture, the importance of always being connected (like the 24/7 news cycle), is shown in a young woman's comment in a New York Times article: "It's like, if you don't check your email, and you turn off your phone, it's almost like you don't exist."
If we interact with people "on screen" ten times as much as in person, eschew phone calls because texting is quicker (really because it's safer); retreat behind a fire wall of email — what does that mean for us? If we devote five months of every year to media, how much more can we take? Forget the tipping point, I think we're already just trying to keep our head above water. I think we're at the desperate place.
Those who say that definitely "our whole family usually eats dinner together" declined 1/3 the last 20 years of the 20th century (p. 100, Bowling Alone)
"With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared… There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon." (p. 211, Bowling Alone)
I can't forget when I was much younger, and people were given an offer: a million dollars, if they would give up TV forever. Most people turned it down.
Things really aren't going so well. Twenge echoes Putnam's work, in noting that before 1915 only 1-2% of Americans had a major depression, while today it's 15-20%. In a "1990's study, 21% of teens aged 15-17" already had had a major depression. It's long been known that isolation and loneliness are major causes of depression, and deepen it. And the definition of depression here is fairly "strict" — the person must be taking medication, or be in "long term therapy." (p. 105-6, The Me Generation)
When middle schoolers were given five options of what to be in their life, the #1 thing they chose (43% of them) was to be the personal assistant to a celebrity. Only 10% wanted to be the chief of a major company, 14% a US Senator, 24% president of a great University. (p. XVI, Fame Junkies)
In 1963 the top 20 most admired people in the world included figures like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, etc. — but not one entertainment/sports/or media star. In 2005 there were six on the list, from Mel Gibson to Rush Limbaugh (oh my). (page XVI, Fame Junkies)
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the typical kid will have seen "40,000 murders and 200,000 other violent acts on TV" by the time they're 18. (p. XXII, Fame Junkies) The media and celebrity have become our reality — and it's pretty dark and twisted.
If we have strong and loving connections with other people, neural pathways in the brain grow and are strengthened; if not, the neural pathways can decline (p. 41 etc., Social Intelligence). If the neural pathways atrophy, the ability to relate to others is greatly diminished. It appears we can literally forget how to love. Still, this impulse to care for others seems to be one of the most basic of all human feelings.
How connected can we be? While I'm twitty at times, my wife and I, married 30 years, will sometimes start thinking of the same thing (a new topic), and both start talking about it at the same time. How can that happen? "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," as the Bard would say.
When the brain wears down, when the neural pathways for empathy are lessened, we eventually lose most of our capability to connect. If this were to happen to our entire culture, we'd be done.
In the extreme case of psychopaths, they actually have little recognition of "fear or sadness on people's faces or in their voices." (p. 128, Social Intelligence). They just don't get it, and brain imagery shows the blanks in their neural pathways.
If you're not convinced yet, here are more medical impacts for being lovingly connected, or not. For men being treated for heart disease, those with the least emotional support had "40% more blockage." (p. 224, Social Intelligence) "… data from a number of large epidemiological studies suggest that toxic relationships are as major a risk factor for disease and death as are smoking, high blood pressure, or cholesterol, obesity, and physical inactivity." (p 224) Stop smoking, or get connected — seems like an easy choice.
What bound America together most in the second half of the 20th century was the terrible challenges we faced: the dust bowl, the depression, and the world agony of World War II. People who faced and fought down the world evil of Nazism had a group trust it is hard for us to imagine today. Recently, as I was organizing a weekend retreat for my church, I realized I had not trusted a group of people like this since I was in Boy Scouts 40 years ago. Corporate life, for me, was pretty soulless.
We can't just say no. If you want to cut a child's media time, you have to lead them in a new direction. Offer them other things to do, drive them to the park, support them seeing their friends. Maybe read together, get wild and meditate together, just have five minutes of quiet time together. Maybe you can help them find an inner life and stillness that will hold them in good stead throughout their lives.
In 1976, a study from the University of Michigan looked back two decades and found that: "Over these two decades informal socializing with friends and relatives declined by about 10%, organizational memberships fell by 16%, and church attendance… declined by 20%." These declines included "unions; church groups; fraternal and veterans organizations; civic groups such as PTA's; youth groups; charities…" etc. (p. 58-59, Bowling Alone) This has continued into the 21st century.
In his seminal work, Bowling Alone, the work which has meant the most to me for this project — sociologist Robert Putnam studied the collapse of social connection which occurred from the 1970's to the start of the new century, but he also looked back at the end of the 19th century, when America moved from the closeness of rural life to crowded, violent cities where they knew no one.
Despite all that was lost in the new city life, the social fabric was rewoven. We joined clubs, set up societies, came together and touched each other. Many of the major institutions of the 20th century grew incredibly in response to this challenge — like the League of Women Voters, Lions Club, Boy Scouts, etc. We may have been jammed together in cities, but we found a way. And jammed together on the internet as we are now, we too will find a way.

A study by Hugh Bowen
Bowen Research
winter, 2010

For years I’ve had the feeling that we are becoming much less connected as people, with less and less face to face time, and more TV, internet, texting, etc.  I’ve reviewed other books on the topic, and fielded my own study of 560 people around the US.  In my study I distressingly found that:

  • 42% feel other people are talking faster (slower for only 4%)
  • 49% feel others are interrupting more (less for only 6%)
  • 60% feel people show less kindness than they used to (only 15% see more kindness)
  • 68% feel we’re more rude (only 8% less rude)
  • For the connection of people in our society as a whole, 53% think it’s “kind of weak” or “it’s disturbing to me how weak it is” (only 11% think it’s good/excellent)
  • And, life is speeding up (for 93% of us).

Above you can click on "The Report" for my full study, including my review of other authors, and my survey. "Key Points" lists all the points made in the scroll box in the upper right. Go to "Forum" to enter your thoughts. Let me know what you think.  And take out some quiet time.

Good luck.

BOWEN RESEARCH SURVEY, where are we now?

In a national study of 560 people ages 13 and up, when asked about their relationships with other people:

How fast are other people talking?

42% think others are talking faster, only 4% more slowly

talk more slowly

no change

some faster

a lot faster

so much faster it really bothers me







How much do other people interrupt you?

49% think others interrupt more, only 6% interrupt less

less than they used to

no change

interrupt somewhat more

 a lot more

so much more it really bothers me







How much kindness do people show each other?

60% think we are less kindly, only 15% more kindly

act more kindly

no change

somewhat less kindly

a whole lot less kindly






How rude are we?

68% think we are more rude, only 8% less rude

are more considerate

no change

somewhat more rude

shocks me how rude people are






How healthy is the overall connection among people?

53% think it’s disturbingly weak/kind of weak, only 12% think it’s pretty good/excellent




kind of weak

disturbing to me how weak






Conversely, 33% are more connected politically:  4% feel “a lot” more connected, 28% “some more connected.”   Still, 44% feel less connected.

The political conversation, in Washington and on TV, etc.,  is not healthy for 91%:  23% say “they argue much harder than they should, and 67% “they really hardly listen to each other, it’s more like they’re just trading attacks.”  

Over half have met people in real life, whom they first met on the internet.  Of them, 15% had sex on the first meeting, which sounds a little desperate.

Life is speeding up for 93% of us, and rapidly for most.   31% say it’s speeding up just a little, 46% “a lot,” and 16% “so much it really concerns me where we’ll be in ten years or so.” 

46% expect they will use electronic media either some more (31%) or “a lot more” (15%) in the next five to ten years.  So this use is just increasing.

Some of the text comments, which people just wrote in, for this survey. 

Technology came in for a real pounding.  Some typical comments:

A lot of people seem to be withdrawing more away from reality and in person speaking and gravitating to the online world.

I have literally seen people dating where they sit across from one another in a restaurant and text and laugh rather than look one another in the eye and speak like normal humans should do

people communicate via text or IM when they should be conversing in person -- breaking up with someone.. saying happy birthday..etc.

Communication is more selfish, combative:

People don't even care about actually relating to each other and view interaction as some sort of contest that they try to win

We always think of what we're about to say next rather than truly listening to the other person...

There was a coming together over 911, and also with the tough economy:

when 9/11 happened we drew together as a nation & helped one another & showed support & kindness to one another. It was amazing!

People are generally concerned:

We are de-uniting.  We are becoming a more selfish, greedy society. 

Branjolina doesnt matter, Tom Cruise doesn't matter, people fill their minds and their energy with such negative, useless stuff.

Not enough involvement in community and caring for others.

I think our country seems more divided than ever when it comes to race, politics, ideas, and how they connect with one another.

*We reached consumers who are somewhat more high tech in their media habits than the national average - still they represent at least 2/3 of the American public.


© 2010 Bowen Research