Are We Disconnecting From Real Life?

by Stephen Mills on December 13, 2009

Online

A while back when I read Jonny’s article about his adventures in Thailand, I reflected on the fact that while I had been staring at a computer screen for the last three months, he was playing with elephants, AK-47’s, hiking in jungles, bathing in waterfalls, meeting new people, and so on.

Jonathan once ask this question on his blog:

“Isn’t technology supposed to make life easier, more affordable, and less complicated? Theoretically, life should be getting easier, not more difficult. Has that been your experience, or is the exact opposite true?”

I answered it this way:

“Technology is making meeting the needs of our daily existence easier, but it certainly isn’t making life overall easier. I think technology is creating such an unnatural environment for human beings to exist in that our minds and bodies can’t take it. We are not made to be connected 24/7, socializing through a computer, living in a concrete jungle, and up all night in the artificial lights. Our brains are exhausted from over stimulation of the unnatural kind.”

It’s not just computers.  We have to include TV and all kinds of handheld devices as well.  Did you know that 60% of smart phone users admit they check email in the bathroom?  The BlackBerry is called the CrackBerry for a good reason.  It’s like a crack addict taking a hit – dopamine floods the addict’s brain.  When you get a text or an email or an IM your brain gets a shot of dopamine.  It’s like pulling the lever on the slot machine and seeing all 7’s.  When I first had a BlackBerry, I thought it was an incredible freeing experience.  I felt like I was unchained from my laptop.  In reality I had just added more links to the ever-growing chain that was slowly enslaving me.

The other day I had lunch with four good friends of mine.  Like all of our lunch dates, it was wonderful.  I found myself wondering why on earth I ever eat lunch staring at the computer screen.  Is technology connecting us or disconnecting us?  Are we losing our ability to truly know one another the in the physical sense required by our brains and bodies?

When I read a personal email from a friend, it is great.  But it is not as personal as a handwritten letter or a phone call.  It’s not as personal as talking to them face-to-face.  It comes in the same medium and looking basically the same as hundreds of other emails I get every day.  Does my email-numbed brain really separate out that personal email from all the others in a fundamental way?  I don’t think so.  I also think it was written in the same mindset.  When you receive and send so many emails, you can’t help but be affected by the mind-numbing context in which they travel.

When I was a kid there were only three TV stations and it was black and white until I was in middle-school.  Video games, movie videos, personal computers, cell phones, etc. were simply unheard of back then.  I barely knew what a computer was except that it helped us land on the moon.  If you didn’t want to be bored, you went outside and played with other kids.  You did what humans evolved to do – interact socially.  When the weather was bad or at night a lot of us read books or played games with our families.

Scientists have discovered something called mirror neurons in our brains.  These neurons fire both when we act and when we watch somebody else act.  We empathize and in a certain respect actually feel the behavior of others because the same neurons are firing in our own heads.  When you see someone get punched, you recoil and grimace because your mirror neurons are firing.  My mirror neurons are not firing when I read or write an email or a tweet.  My body is not in synch with my virtual conversation partner.  It is not dancing the non-verbal dance that nature intended.

Why go somewhere to be with people when it is so easy to entertain yourself staring at a screen.  Why go to the store to buy something when you can order it online and have it delivered.  When you go to common places, you hear less conversation and more clicking.  People aren’t talking with real people, they are typing on machines; sometimes tiny little phone machines.

We thought that when people stopped reading and socializing with each other and instead spent hours staring absently at a TV screen that something important was being lost.  We thought people were giving up a real world in favor of a virtual world.  We really had no idea back then of what was yet to come.   We are rapidly retreating into virtual common places with no end in sight.  We are exchanging our physical interaction for virtual interaction.

When I go into a public library now, the place is packed.  But it isn’t packed with people browsing for books.  It is packed with people staring quietly into computer screens.  I hope my grandchildren, if I ever have any, hang out with their friends instead of laying on their beds texting each other.  I hope when they go into a library it is to find a book and not type on a computer.

I think we can do great things with all this technology, but we have to use it wisely and with full awareness of our physical social needs, or it may turn us into something we don’t really want to be.  Maybe it already has.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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{ 3 trackbacks }

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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordie Rogers December 13, 2009 at 8:25 am

I think we have let technology intrude a little too much. Look what happens when you’re having lunch with someone and then they receive a message. The world stops! Lol!
.-= Gordie Rogers´s last blog ..Why Deadlines Are For Deadbeats. =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 8:59 am

Hi Gordie! I’ve been watching how and where people use their cell phones and it is amazing how people feel the need to have it glued to their ear or eyes so much of the time.

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Mark Dowdell December 13, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Sadly, I sometimes fall into the trap of texting while in the bathroom… I don’t even know why I do it. There are other technology habits I have that I’m trying to live without. I spend most of my day on a computer at work, then go straight for my personal computer when I get home… it is a vicious cycle. I feel as though I’m missing out on my life. I thought about going to the library last week to find a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but after some searching, I found it online and I didn’t go. I just printed it out and read it in my room. I guess I saved on gas driving there, but who knows what I missed out on? Perhaps I would have had an interaction with someone about the author?
.-= Mark Dowdell´s last blog ..Pulling the Trigger =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:05 am

Hi Mark, I’m guilty of being too connected to technology too. I download books to my Kindle. I like to go to the library or the bookstore, not to have a conversation with anyone necessarily, but just to get out and experience a real physical world.

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Zeenat{Positive Provocations} December 13, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Stephen,
I am so with you on this…..I agree with you completely.
I remember while i was growing up too we had just 3 channels on tv…and the home phn was the only phn. Even on tv there was just a half hr of kids cartoons that we used to be allowed to watch. We used to play outside and do arts and crafts and have scrap books…to pass our time.
At that time even doing school research meant digging into the school library or the encyclopedia set daddy had bought us. it used to be real research..today the other workd for research is google 🙂
I agree technology is great…but as you said used wisely it is. I only recently realised how crippled it was making me…so i sold my blackberry and back to a simple phone. I have cut down on a lot of my so called electronic extras…..The difference between the need and the want was creeping my head….:)
.-= Zeenat{Positive Provocations}´s last blog ..Human Experience {Inspiration from Helen Keller} =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:07 am

Hi Zeenat, I think it is all about finding the balance. How can we use technology to help us, which I do, while at the same time not allowing it to consume us.

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Miche - Serenity Hacker December 13, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Hi Stephen, great post, and incredible questions! I really enjoyed reading this and these are topics I’ve discussed and debated before, many times.

One thing that technology has always “promised” to do, if you look back over the history and advertising, was give us more “free time”, and to make life simpler and easier. This is how washers and dryers and appliances were sold and marketed and years ago. Not washing clothes by hand was a timesaver, for sure. Yet what’s happened with all our technical “advances” is that they’ve actually sped up time, really. We have all these “time savers” yet have so much MORE to do! The complexity of our lives has become rather dizzying for sure… NOT simple. We have to WORK toward simple now!

The social aspect of our networked technology is another interesting aspect of all of this. My grandmother and her extended family went to see each other in person. They had telephones but didn’t use them for socializing. My generation did socialize on the telephone (when allowed) but we also went outside. There were rules around telephone use, too, and one phone in the house. I couldn’t even have a private conversation without someone in the family hearing because I was tethered by the cord. There was no real way to stay connected to your social life other than to BE THERE. And with no cell phones, there was no way to know what was going on elsewhere when your were somewhere. So, you were “really” there, where you were, during the time you were there.

While there are plenty of positive aspects to our technological advances as well as the ability to connect with others I do believe that our technical growth, or “advancement”, needs our attention in a critical manner… one that doesn’t just blindly accept this lifestyle as positive or better, but rather questions, evaluates, and pushes back against it when need be.

Cheers,
Miche 🙂
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..Is Passion Necessary for a Meaningful Life? =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:23 am

Hi Miche, what a thoughtful comment. I think this says it all: “We have to WORK toward simple now!”. You got it exactly right in your last paragraph. Thank you!

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Sami Paju December 13, 2009 at 5:00 pm

I think, that at some point there’s been a switch, that the technology that was supposed to serve people has actually become the master, and the people are serving the technology.

I work as an IT consultant, and the way I see it is, that everything is becoming more complex and “sophisticated” and somewhere along the way the actual person, the human aspect, is forgotten. A complex IT system may help the company to make money, but it will also quite likely make the company lose flexibility and creativity. And a lot of people are needed just to maintain the system, to make sure that it works.

In a sense the company is a chariot, pulled by people who work there, but it’s the IT systems that are driving the chariot.
.-= Sami Paju´s last blog ..Believing is seeing =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:46 am

Hello Sami and thanks for comment. Yes, I think you have it exactly right – we are becoming slaves to the technology that has the potential to greatly improve our lives.

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Fatibony December 13, 2009 at 6:23 pm

True! Technology is supposed to make our lives much easier and perhaps better. But then as creatures of habits we are bound to easily fall into the trap of forming unhealthy habits; where we sometimes forget to rip benefits of the “natural environment”. And you have provided an answer which I do agree with ……..“we can do great things with all this technology, but we have to use it wisely and with full awareness of our physical social needs, or it may turn us into something we don’t really want to be” We simply need to discipline ourselves and know when to take a break ….. From these gadgets every now and then… Great article I really enjoyed it.. 🙂
.-= Fatibony´s last blog ..Whilst The Christmas Bells Are Swinging….. =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:47 am

Fatibony, thanks for the wonderful comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Walter December 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Technology is only a tool, we should not let it blind us with its shimmering gloss. We should not let it encroach on activities which brings us pleasure. 🙂

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:48 am

Hi Walter, yes it is a tool to be used for our benefit, but unfortunately I think we are taking it to far. I’m sure we’ll get it all figured out in the end.

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Jonny December 14, 2009 at 5:33 am

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for the link and was intrigued by the part on mirror neurones. I read a lot about psychology and how our brains functions but had not come across this before. It was an excellent start to my day, I am off to check them out.
.-= Jonny´s last blog ..Your Chance To Read Possible The Worlds Longest Blog =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:49 am

Hello Jonny, I myself am intrigued by the mirror neurons. It is a relatively recent discovery. Thanks for stopping by.

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Positively Present December 14, 2009 at 6:36 am

Great article, Stephen! I agree that we need to make use of technology — but we need to do it wisely. We cannot let it overtake our lives, but I don’t think it’s something we can ignore either because there are many benefits to embracing technological advances.
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..the best ways to embrace solitude =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:50 am

Hello Dani, thank you for dropping in. I’m certainly no Luddite and I take full advantage of the technology. I’m just worried that we are missing out on something really important.

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Lisis December 14, 2009 at 9:24 am

Stephen, you took the words right out of my brain. I’ve been thinking about writing a post just like this.

Some days, when I’m sitting at my laptop blogging, and my son is sitting at the PC doing whatever kids do online, I feel like we are living the Allegory of the Net. Instead of staring at shadows on the wall of our cave, we are staring at reflections of real life on our screens. But the REALLY real life is “out there”… where the climate isn’t controlled, where other people have physical bodies, where sounds don’t require speakers, and details are perceived with all of our senses.

What makes the Net so alluring is that we can FILTER this imaginary world. We can read, play and do only what we like. We can interact with only the people we choose. We can BE whoever we want to pretend to be. It’s like all the normal laws of life (the ups and downs, the consequences) are suspended, and we magically exist in a jello-state of pleasantness.

Getting the “real” world to feel like this is not so easy (idyllic vacations aside). In other words, the Net is our new drug… the thing we use to escape, or replace, our day to day lives. And we justify it with: but I’m earning money, or I’m helping people, or I’m learning so much! Hm.

So, what do we do, Stephen? How do I get the world outside my window to be as interesting as the world behind my screen (particularly without the means to do all the exciting things I can dream up)? THIS is the answer I currently seek.

HELP! 🙂
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Inspiration from T. Alan Armstrong: Become Your Passion =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 10:04 am

Lisis, you have a real talent with words sometimes. “…we magically exist in a jello-state of pleasantness.” I absolutely LOVE it 🙂

In answer to your question, I don’t know exactly. I’m doing better at it by following my own advice on my blog. But I think it is the answer many of us seek. Thank you for your interesting and thoughtful comment!

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Suzanne December 14, 2009 at 9:45 am

“In other words, the Net is our new drug… the thing we use to escape, or replace, our day to day lives. And we justify it with: but I’m earning money, or I’m helping people, or I’m learning so much! Hm.”

My thoughts exactly Lisis.

As for all the technology upgrades, I can do without most of them except efficient appliances and DVR for the infrequent TV watching I do. The computer, and the Net especially, well, that’s a different story. That one is a bit of my nemesis.
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..Take Care Of Yourself By Reaching Out =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 10:02 am

Hi Suzanne, I think Miche got it right. The technology allows us to speed up and do more, so instead of having more free time we have less. It’s an unintended consequence. It just means each one of us has to have personal accountability in making sure we use the best of it and avoid the worst of it.

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills December 15, 2009 at 1:18 am

Stephen, I think you captured the concerns of a lot of us with this. There are some huge trade offs in technoville. Interesting how the very devices that were supposed to free us end up enslaving us instead. You can take the trend back as far as you like. A century ago, families gave up the farm to go work in factories, then used their earnings to pay someone to grow their food. It’s been a steady migration away from the simple life to a world of electronics and antidepressants. What’s next?
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..14 Very Effective Communication Skills =-.

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Lisis December 15, 2009 at 10:03 am

Jonathan, I think that would make for an interesting scientific study… the correlation between electronics use and antidepressants. I wonder if significantly reducing electronics time would increase happiness levels? Hmm…
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Ten Useful Tips for Snow Noobs, Like Me =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:59 am

Hi Jonathan, there is an interesting book called the tyranny of email. The author traces the history of communications and how even the telegraph over a century ago started connecting the world instantaneously. Nothing like today of course, but the trend is certainly going in that direction. I don’t know what next, but I wonder if it will be for the good. Thanks for your comment.

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Vin - NaturalBias December 15, 2009 at 10:06 am

I couldn’t agree more, Stephen! Despite the great conveniences and opportunities that technology offers, it is being abused in many instances.

Between blogging and full time employment, I’ve spent much of the past year behind a computer screen. While I consider the time I spend writing articles for my blog to be valuable because it allows me to solidify my thoughts and is even therapeutic, I recently decided to cut back to make sure I have more time for more important things such as eating dinner with my family every night, exercising more often, playing more tennis, preparing my own meals rather than relying on my wife to do it, etc. It has been very liberating so far. If it detracts from the success of my blog, so be it. A year is too long as it is, I don’t want to sacrifice balance any longer for a successful blog.

Being attached to phones is even worse in my opinion. Due to the radiation risks, I keep mine off 99% of the time anyway and basically have it for emergencies and occasional convenience. In regard to socializing and meeting with friends, it’s become rare to have a meal or a conversation with friends without the occasion being interrupted multiple times by them getting trivial text messages and phone calls. This is especially the case with the younger generation which is a sad indication of what the future holds.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..Don’t Let Reebok Fool You – Shoes Won’t Tone Your Butt! =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:57 am

Hi Vin, the phone and text thing is really irritating and you are right it is worse with the younger people. They grew up that way. They are even more connected, addicted, distracted. I love the way you put it – “trivial”. Yes 99% of them are trivial. How did we survive without them in the past?? Thanks for your comment.

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meatlessmama December 15, 2009 at 1:17 pm

While I love my computer, it seems that technology also cuts us off from one another. When spending time with someone, they often must interrupt the conversation in order to answer their cell phone or check the latest incoming text message. It’s like multi-tasking, no one fully gives their undivided attention to each other anymore.

You must be about my age, I remember when the t.v. stations went off the air at midnight.
.-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Five Minute Gazpacho Soup Recipe =-.

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Stephen Mills December 18, 2009 at 9:54 am

Hi Meatlessmama, Yes I certainly remember TV stations going off the air and either seeing static or that stupid design on the screen. It is rather irritating how people check their messages or answer their phones in the middle of a conversation. Thank you for commenting!

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Katherine SOLO dot MOM January 17, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Great post. It is true we are slipping into our never-ending virtual worlds… and our children don’t know anything different – unless we open them up to doing things on a physical social level.

One tradition that I insist up on in our home – is we have dinner seated… all together….at the dining room table… and actually have conversation… with no techy gadgets allowed. Pretty surreal thought, huh. But we do and we do this regularly as a family. Quite frankly this ends up being one of my favorite parts of my day.
.-= Katherine SOLO dot MOM´s last blog ..Helping Haiti… It’s Not About Our Economy =-.

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Mike March 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm

As a web developer and writer, I definitely have become aware of this feeling of disconnection when I’m feeling “hyperconnected” via the computer – when I take vacations, I usually at least take my laptop with me to make sure not to miss something important from a client. The additions of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites are creating a surplus of acquaintances, but I feel they are taking away from intimacy.

These days I make sure to get out at least twice a day during the day just to take a walk in the sun – even if I don’t speak to anybody until 4:30 or 5, just being outside on my own makes me feel far more connected to reality, no matter how many friends I receive “wall posts” from on Facebook!

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sean May 8, 2010 at 10:25 am

Absolutely, disconnected is what is happening to us. I tend to catch myself getting caught up in surf wave on the net where time bends out of shape. I look up and realise that I’ve been checking emails and reading news and blogging for hours – when really I wanted to drink my Morning coffee and talk to my partner, who went to work and so it’s too late to say something to her! I think it’s important to have a little discipline and really think about why we use the net and how we can utilize it rather than get sucked into it. thought provoking post actually, thanks!
.-= sean´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

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Niluka Weerasinghe June 19, 2010 at 11:41 am

Hi,
100% correctly said,
I have no time to spend with my family members, they go way from us and we not aware of that. i thing my life will change now on

Thanks for sharing this post

Niluka

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Henway December 22, 2010 at 9:58 pm

I feel this way all the time – we’re so isolated these days. We dun even know our neighbors. Instead of having a live face to face chat with others, we rely on texting or the internet. It really pisses me off. but at the same time I know I’m part of the problem.. I spend hours on da internet.. but it’s OK, right? I mean.. I make money online@
Henway´s last blog post ..The Holiday Colon Cleanse

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Jennifer Bunin November 15, 2011 at 10:22 am

One thing that is possibly the worst about being disconnected is that we believe its better than being connected. When relationships fall apart and families are devastated thats only when we only realize the influence technology leaves on us

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Holly April 3, 2012 at 8:40 am

John Lennon’s immortal words “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” springs to mind. We’ve all got to keep changing. Getting the right guidance is one thing, acting on it is another thing entirely.

I learned from someone I believed and trusted and I hope you don’t mind me sharing a taste of her with you.

Shirley’s Brutal Truth

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Ayush August 30, 2012 at 10:00 am

Brilliantly written.

Good to see, people are thinking on de-complicating their lives.

Life is far more fun, when it’s simple. Sadly, we can’t prove it statistically.
Ayush´s last blog post ..An actress portraying the unsung heroines of India.

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Alan Harneish June 22, 2013 at 5:34 pm

I have had a number of conversations in recent times about how technology may actually be changing the way our brains work. I think there is a lot to that topic. So many hours a day interacting with electronics would be expected to change our levels of focus, concentration and so on.
Alan Harneish´s last blog post ..5 Tips for Improving Communication in the Workplace

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Phil Maguire | Get Rich/Save The Planet March 6, 2014 at 10:11 am

Is technology disconnecting us from real life? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, it is disconnecting us from real life if we wish it to. No, it is not disconnecting us from real life if we don’t wish it to. Technology is not to blame, we are.

At this very moment, my stepdaughter, Kathryn, is away in China. Thanks to technology, we get realtime updates on how her trip is going. This is a Godsend because without it, Kathryn’s mother would be racked with worry over whether she was still alive or not. Also, it allows us to share in her adventures by contributing our own ideas as to what she could do. Kathryn’s grandmother’s in France also on holiday but she is kept up to date by relaying the messages to her as well.

So, are we more disconnected or more connected because of technology? That’s up to us

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