In the first scenario, a man and a woman sit across from each other at a romantically lit table in a fancy restaurant texting – looking down and talking to others, maybe each other – but rarely glancing up except to place drink and food orders.
In the second, a mother walks into a diner joining friends for lunch, carrying her 2-year-old. She sets him down at the table, hands him a tablet device, takes out her smartphone, searches messages, and half listens for only occasional moments of adult conversation squeezed in between swooshes across their collective screens.
What ties them together? The distance between them. Both scenarios reflect a new phenomenon of the digital age growing ever more rapidly. It’s called “virtual distance.”
Changing the Rules of Interaction
Virtual distance is a psychological and emotional sense of detachment that accumulates little by little, at the sub-conscious or unconscious level, as people trade-off time interacting with each other for time spent “screen skating” (swiping, swishing, pinching, tapping, and so on).
It is also a measurable phenomenon and can cause some surprising effects. For example, when virtual distance is relatively high, people become distrustful of one another. One result: they keep their ideas to themselves instead of sharing them with others in the workplace – a critical exchange that’s necessary for taking risks needed for innovation, collaboration and learning.
Another unintended consequence: people disengage from helping behaviors – leaving others to fend for themselves causing them to feel isolated, often leading to low job satisfaction and organizational commitment.
Virtual distance research underscores that the rules of interaction have changed. It changes the way people feel – about each other, about themselves, and about how they fit into the world around them.
But the demonstrated impacts measured among adults seem comparatively benign when considered against what it might be doing to children.
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