There’s nothing quite like laughing with good friends to lift your spirits or getting a big hug from someone who cares when life gets tough. But in today’s digital world, can online interactions truly fulfill us emotionally?
It turns out that excessive screen time, even talking with friends over social media, can lead to poor emotional regulation without sufficient real-world interaction. Too much time online fails to satisfy the fundamental human need for face-to-face social interaction.
In a recent LifeSpeak podcast episode, psychologist, marital therapist, and mental health expert Dr. Jody Carrington shared how feeling disconnected can impact how we interact with the people around us. She also shared tips on how we can share our ability to connect with others to fuel their (and our own) mental health. Additionally, she provides two points to focus on when we need to manage our emotions.
“In the history of the world, we have never been more disconnected than we are now,” says Dr. Carrington.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, three out of ten participants (approximately 28 percent) report feeling dissatisfied and lonely most of the time, compared to 7 percent of satisfied participants.
Dr. Carrington says a significant contributor to our disconnection is emotional dysregulation, a condition where someone struggles to manage their emotions, often feeling overwhelmed or lacking control. Although we are constantly connected virtually, we lose our authentic human connections, and people who matter to us start to feel distant.
Dr. Carrington notes that emotional dysregulation is triggered when someone can’t control their feelings, mostly in times of adversity or challenging situations, as their ability to regulate emotions effectively breaks down during periods of stress or uncertainty.
Dr. Carrington says we learn how to regulate our emotions from birth. For example, newborn babies don’t have many regulation skills, so crying is their instinct. It is the adult’s responsibility to calm them down. As children grow up, their emotions are constantly regulated by family members, teachers, coaches, and more. Dr. Carrington says that instinctively, we are all equipped with different feelings to help us handle any situation.
“The fundamental basis of emotional regulation is that we all have it,” says Dr. Carrington.
While emotional dysregulation occurs on a spectrum, Dr. Carrington notes that in more severe or chronic cases, it can significantly impact mental health and wellbeing. Failing to effectively manage emotional episodes, especially during times of prolonged stress or uncertainty, may lead to a persistent state of distress over the long-term.
According to research by Rogers Behavioral Health, chronic emotional dysregulation affects 4 to 6 percent of the general population. For those struggling with this condition, the inability to self-regulate emotions in a healthy way can translate to higher risks of depression, anxiety, social isolation, and other mental health issues down the road if not addressed.
Making conscious efforts to maintain authentic human connections through both quality in-person time and digital communication may help prevent emotional dysregulation from escalating to this chronic level for some individuals experiencing distress from disconnection.
Dr. Carrington says that although our digital devices cause in-person human disconnection, we can still use technology effectively to connect meaningfully with others virtually.
“Send somebody you love right now a text that says, ‘I don’t know if I tell this to you enough, but you matter to me,’” says Dr. Carrington. “When we look at how to infuse joy into our days, those are the sudden bursts of emotion that are much more important.”
However, with emotional dysregulation, we sometimes unknowingly misinterpret meaningful connections. Dr. Carrington shares that when people receive genuine messages, our first response usually isn’t reciprocation but suspicion.
“The people we love most are suspicious when we’re kind because we tend to spend a lot of time wondering about what we’re not doing right rather than celebrating the things that are great,” says Dr. Carrington.
Dr. Carrington says she often sees a spark re-ignited between couples engaged in therapy sessions and notes a genuine connection, even if they don’t exchange words.
“There’s something between two people that have a history or that have a shared experience that often cannot be replicated,” says Dr. Carrington.
Sometimes, establishing connections with others can lead to negative consequences. It might feel exhausting, disheartening, or demoralizing when the other person doesn’t reciprocate the same connection.
“The dance of feeling seen with another is very hard to get in sync right out of the gate,” says Dr. Carrington.
When connections are not perfect right away, how can we protect our mental health? Dr. Carrington recommends adjusting our expectations.
“Understanding that there will be times of disappointment, sadness, shame, and rejection,” says Dr. Carrington. “If we don’t avoid those but have a plan for if or when they come, we are so much more able to deal with that.”
Connections with others help us feel seen and understood, fostering a sense of validation and belonging that contributes to our emotional wellbeing.
“It is an undeniable understanding of the knowing, the feeling that somebody gets you,” says Dr. Carrington. “It’s like, ‘I suddenly feel a connected kinship to another person, another thing, another experience.’ And when we feel seen, my gosh, it’s a gift, and it’s fuel for the soul.”
Dr. Carrington says the key to strengthening human connections is to embrace empathy.
“The more times we are connected with ourselves, the better able we are to give it away to the people we love, we lead, we teach, and we care for,” says Dr. Carrington. “We all have that ability to give that away. It is predicated on our own emotional regulation because you can’t feel or see another when you’re emotionally dysregulated yourself, and it’s strung together by empathy.”
Dr. Carrington suggests a few best practices to manage our emotions and solidify our relationships at home or work.
The first is to focus on ourselves.
Carve out time for self-care. It is important because it fuels our instinctive emotional needs. It also helps us better understand, process, and regulate our emotions and provides a healthy outlet to experience and manage them effectively.
“You’re the number one most important thing,” says Dr. Carrington. “If you are not emotionally regulated in your body, if you’re not doing what you need to do to stay connected and grounded to the people you love, you will have a very difficult time stepping outside your door and serving anybody.”
Another way is to make sure you have a support system in place. Dr. Carrington encourages us to cultivate a team who helps validate our daily feelings and regulate us emotionally.
“If you’re a mom that works from home, who is your network that keeps you together? If you own your own company, who are the people who encourage you?” asks Dr. Carrington. “If you’re going through a hard time and there’s very few people to walk you through those things, you lose access to the best parts of yourself.”
Real-life relationships need intentional cultivation to fulfill fundamental human needs. When people connect through screens, they need to meet their psychological and emotional needs through meaningful social interaction and support. If left unbalanced, excessive time online could undermine overall wellbeing and cause genuine relationships to deteriorate.
However, blending online and offline connections strengthens human relationships in the digital age. In our increasingly digital world, real-life relationships require proactive nurturing to fulfill basic human needs for social interaction and support. While connecting via technology opens avenues for communication, relying exclusively on screens risks leaving people’s psychological and emotional needs unmet. If not balanced with quality in-person time, excessive online engagement could undermine overall wellbeing by hindering the formation of significant bonds.
Face-to-face interactions are significant for sharing authentic human experiences like conversations, joint activities, and acts of caring for one another. Regularly trying to unplug and prioritize real-world connections helps strengthen relationships by satisfying the fundamental desires for community and meaningful presence that digital interaction alone cannot replace. Intentionally blending online and offline interactions effectively fosters relationships adapted to the modern age.
Looking to promote mental health at work and beyond?
Dr. Carrington encourages organizations to provide tools and resources to help employees focus on developing a wide range of soft skills that can enhance their emotional regulation and communication in the workplace.
“It is time, more than ever, to look to our employees way more than to the people we serve. Because if the people we have in our organization aren’t okay, the people we serve don’t stand a chance,” says Dr. Carrington.
Employers can support this effort by offering mental health resources through health plan benefits. LifeSpeak Mental Health & Resilience, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., is a leading digital solution that provides expert-led resources to help employees and their families prioritize mental health.
Request a demo today to learn more about our holistic, comprehensive suite of wellbeing solutions.