Virtual and Real Relationships: A Balancing Act

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 1Corinthians 10:31

IMAGINE that you are about to eat a tasty piece of fruit but then notice that a part of it is rotten. What will you do? Well, you could eat the entire fruit, even the bad part; you could throw away the entire fruit, including the bad part; or you could cut the bad part out of the fruit and enjoy the good part. What choice will you make?

In some ways, our relationships both virtual and in real life are similar to the fruit with some bad spots. Our virtual relationships offer a fun and sometimes exciting escape from reality and serve as a safe space to vent our thoughts with nobody to physically challenge us or to judge our immediate actions. Our online connections can satisfy us in surprising ways and allow us to do things that were only science fiction many decades ago.

While the enticing effect of being online, on our smartphones, in the various chat rooms, and social networking platforms can engage our mental senses, the same vice as it were can slowly disengage us from the real world.  How easy it is to have several hours go by while we are glued to our computer screens or smartphones.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that the average child spends seven hours a day looking at a screen, be it a cell phone, computer, TV, or another electronic device. The average workday is eight hours. It is astonishing that our children spend almost an entire workday of time watching a device and being engrossed in virtual reality. Is it any wonder that today’s youth may be irritable, moody, restless and ready to have an emotional outburst?

It is so tempting as parents to hand your child, a smartphone, tablet, or any other electronic gaming device to keep them entertained. But could a better choice be made to stimulate their fragile and developing minds? Could adults take a step back and look at the pros and cons and effects of our virtual reality experience and strike a healthy balance of real-world connections?

The purpose of this article is not to bash the use of electronic devices, or the technological advances that allow a more connected world, but rather to educate and inform of the potential challenges and risks and find more creative alternatives to stimulate the mind and have engagement in the real world that is equally as fulfilling.

How has technology impacted socialization within the family?

We are living in a fast pace and ever-changing world. The entertainment, personal recreational, and communication strategies of the 1960s are vastly different from what we are experiencing today.  Almost overnight we went from a world of four-day snail mail to instant global communication. We transformed from Sunday drives and family picnics to individual personal space and ‘me time’ on our devices.

In an era where there can be miles of physical separation between members of a family on any given day, technology has the effect of keeping them together in ways that were not possible 30 years ago.

Our smartphones can allow parents to keep track of children and reassure them instantly if they should need us.  They can go to their exact location very quickly in the event of an emergency.  When they go off to college, we can have ongoing communication and interaction with them via Facetime, Facebook, or with any number of various social media apps. We can update grandma and share pictures instantly of the kids, or the family dog.  For those who have to be away for extended periods of time such as military members, with only a computer and a good internet connection we can feel connected while thousands of miles away in another country.

Recently the world has experienced a pandemic that changes the way we communicate and interact with each other due to health concerns and safety practices. These changes mandate that we rely more and more on the technology that has the ability to bring us together in a global virtual reality.  We are now increasingly expected to adhere to social distancing guidelines and yet stay just as connected as we have been in the real world. This has proven to be the new challenge of reality that is not yet fully understood.

Technology has allowed us more ways to communicate and connect, while at the same time creating far too many opportunities for us to be isolated and disconnected from each other. Interestingly enough, these effects equally apply to adults as well as children.

What is the impact of virtual relationships vs reality-based relationships?

I for one, have long been an advocate for one on one communications and personal interaction with other human beings.  It is rather frustrating in a sense to believe that one may consider virtual relationships are more intimate than a one on one, person to person relationship based in reality.  Oddly enough, this new reality of screen time with family and friends seems to be taking a major foothold in our society. More and more people seem to be resistant to actual telephone conversations and face to face interactions. Texting has become a mainstream form of communication, especially with the generations who are not baby boomers.

Are we filling voids that may be lacking in our real-life relationships? Are we reinforcing our comfort zones?

A virtual relationship does not mean that it is unreal. It simply means that it is developed in a virtual world, and with online platforms such as, Facebook, Skype, texting and Whatsapp.

One of the things that make virtual relationships so attractive and somewhat easier to get started and maintain is it provides a safe space to share your thoughts and ideas. It’s even more alluring when the person on the other end of the screen does not know you, may not judge you. Some virtual relationships allow you to maintain a sense of connection and attention that you seek and crave in the real world.

It can be liberating to reach out and connect to someone in a way that is non-judgmental and may not require a commitment of any sort. These types of virtual relationships and style of communication can reinforce themselves over time.

Could it be that virtual relationships lets us off the hook for the real work and skilled communication that is required in our real-world relationships? Virtual relationships have no responsibilities attached to them.  With just the click of a mouse, you can delete or block the other person and never have to interact with them again.

This is not so simple in the real world, especially if family is involved.  For the shy or timid person, a virtual relationship can be the perfect answer to their fear of personal engagements. However, this can lead to a real avoidance of real-world relationships and communication and hinder the growth that is needed to fully develop as a healthy whole person, confident in their social skills. Christians however have the confidence that is grounded in faith.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Phillipians 4:13 NKJV

What are some precautions to consider?

 Some may be tempted to push the boundaries of conversation and communication that they otherwise would never do in person.  Anonymity is the liberating curtain that one can hide behind to express anything to anyone. In a family setting even during a heated discussion, one might filter what they say so as to not emotionally devastate the other person.

 There is real work involved in any relationship and or communication.  These relationships, especially in the real world get messy and require a lot of sorting out and a commitment to communication with great listening skills and understanding.

Extra care is needed to have a clear concise and well-articulated conversation online.  It is so easy for the person on the other end of a message to misinterpret what the sender was saying. These misinterpretations can have negative consequences.

There is a danger of neglecting or taking for granted some of our real-world relationships.  It comes very slowly and subtle.  We are indeed social creatures, as God has created us to interact with each other and with him.  “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29

There is a danger of putting more time and attention to our virtual relationships than our real ones.  Today, more than ever we have to be vigilant at balancing our time in both worlds.  Our work environment most recently may have required us to shift to working from home instead of the office and that will also may mean even more screen time. Remote learning is now an alternative to the dangers that may exist in a school classroom due to the pandemic.

We need to keep in mind that our real relationships are value-driven, and center around what we deem to be important. Virtual relationships can revolve around any past time, subject or common interest.

The Health Benefits Of Connection

 It has been long known that diet, sleep and exercise contribute to healthy living. But did you know that there is another component that has equal impact on our overall health?

Research has shown that having a strong social connection can have many health benefits.  Also, on the opposite scale, a lack of social connection can have a negative impact on our health in surprising ways.

Real human connections and the behavioral influences that result from them can be so powerful that they have given rise to an area of study called “network science,” which explores how behavior and behavior changes influence connected groups of people.Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D., Contributor Huffington Post

 The studies have shown an interesting effect on people who shared a common goal activity or goal.  For example, one landmark study on obesity published in New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that having just one friend who becomes obese can increase a person’s chance of becoming obese by 57 percent, and that weight gain isn’t only influenced by a person friends, but by the friends of friends who have gained weight. Most any member of the highly successful Weight Watchers program will tell you that a key motivation and reinforcement tool of the program is weekly meetings with other like-minded people who are also losing weight.

The real life in person social network and its benefits cannot be overstated enough. It not only affects the speed of adopting new habits, but also the degree to which those new habits are instilled. Our real-life connections can contribute to our well-being, with just the physical presence, and nobody would disagree that a well-timed good joke can send an entire room into an uproar of laughter.

While a text with ‘LOL’ can convey an intended funny moment, a stomach hurting, tear forming laugh, leaves no doubt in the mind of the hearer in the real world. How interesting that science is confirming what the Bible has spoken of long ago. “A merry heart does good like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” Proverbs 17:22 NKJV

Scientists are investigating the biological and behavioral factors that account for the health benefits of connecting with others. For example, they’ve found that it helps relieve harmful levels of stress, which can adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system.The health benefits of strong relationships – Harvard Health

Having a strong social network provides a huge range of benefits.  It can make all the difference to have someone you can count on to watch your kids, pick something up at the grocery store, or someone to talk to when you have had a bad day.  (Journal of Health and Social Behavior) Peggy A Thoits June 14, 2011

Some interesting findings suggest that a close connection has the same benefits regardless if it is strictly in a family setting or within our outer circle of friendships and acquaintances, however maybe to a lesser degree.  (Antonucci, Akiyama, & Takahashi, 2004)

There is a sense of relief in knowing that one is not alone in the event of the unforeseen. Is it not better to have a friend close by, than a brother far away? “Do not forsake your friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you-better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.”  Proverbs 27:10

Pros of Virtual Relationships

 Stress free: Virtual relationships are relatively stress free because they do not require or demand much effort from people other than the time to log online and type comments.  A few clicks of the mouse and you are suddenly communicating with someone else, without the back and forth emotional engagement that is associated with real world relationships.

No intimacy: No physical intimacy can make online relationships less intimidating.  In a professional setting, negotiating online rather than in person face to face is far easier to manage than the usual etiquette demands that are required in a real-world setting.

Time saving:  A simple click onto the computer or a phone call can allow for conversation as long as you want and frees up time to multitask and do other things.  This is not possible in a real-world conversation as you are expected to give the other person your undivided attention.

Cons of Virtual Relationships

 Interesting enough some of the things that support the pros of a virtual relationship can also work in the opposite manner.

No physical presence: The importance of physical presence cannot be overstated. Hundreds of studies support the many benefits of social engagement in the real world.  We are hardwired for interacting in the world where we can actually see, feel, touch, hear and experience our existence and the existence of others.

Addictive: Most gamers can attest to the addictive aspect of virtual reality. If left unchecked and unmonitored it can be a driving force that consumes your life. Also, because it is so comfortable to maintain a virtual relationship, some people actually prefer it over real in person connections.  It becomes increasingly more difficult for some people to handle real life relationships. No doubt this can be a destructive force that can tear a family apart and put a wedge between the person who is addicted and their loved ones who are seeking more and more of their attention.

Cyber crimes: It is no secret that a significant level of fraud, scams and false identities takes place online. It is a growing problem on a global scale. Extra care must be taken to beware of other people online who may not be who they portray themselves to be.  This is especially important regarding children. There are some who will use the innocence of children or teenagers and engage them online for criminal purposes or even sexual exploitation.

The internet allows us to shop from the comfort of our homes and provides a measure of convenience. Ironically that same measure of shopping freedom serves as an easy platform for criminals to use in separating people from their hard-earned money. Countless stories abound of people who have been scammed out of hundreds and thousands of dollars because of unscrupulous online predators.

There are many benefits of our connected world from instant communications to online shopping on a global scale, and it allows us to experience each other in a totally new and different way.  The best of both worlds can be achieved if we are aware of the dangers of going to the extreme and make a strong effort to have balance in our lives of the virtual and the real world. “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” 1Corinthians 6:12

Biography:

Eugene Coghill is the creator of Kingdom Living, www.eugenecoghill.com a Christian based inspirational blog. His achievements have included two published novels, Love Is A Fishnet (2008) and most recently, A Loving Deception (February 2020). He is in pursuit of a freelance copywriting career with American Writer’s and Artists, Inc. and is a member of the Professional Writer’s Alliance.

Some past careers have included the Unites States Marine Corps, law enforcement, corporate Investigator, and is currently a professional driver (tractor trailer) for Walmart.

Inspirational speaking, especially to troubled youths has become his growing passion to share his own story of overcoming a very abusive and challenging childhood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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