CNBC Disruptor 50

Is technology killing the human touch?

Chris Morris, special to

John (not his real name) used to look forward to the evenings—the times when he and his wife would catch up, watch some television and mutually unwind from the day.

That was five years ago. Today, he says, the two spend more evenings staring at their phones than they do at each other. And though it frustrates him to no end, he has accepted it as the new normal.

"Between the time we spend on Facebook, Twitter and Words With Friends, I feel like we sacrifice the time we used to use to bond—but it's not like either of us is willing to give up those things," he said.

Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

As we become more and more connected as a society, behaviors are evolving—some for the better, some for the worse.

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In 2012, in fact, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that the brain chemicals of people who habitually used the Internet (and were perhaps addicted to it) had abnormal connections between the nerve fibers in their brain. These changes are similar to other sorts of addicts, including alcoholics.

That can impact communications, relationships and our day-to-day interactions with others. But while some of these behavioral changes are being touted as new, they're really just updated versions of old conduct, claim experts.

Take "ghosting," which has been discussed regularly in the media lately. The name refers to someone simply vanishing from another person's life, usually after the two have gone on several dates. It's a frustrating, confusing and, certainly, impolite way to end a relationship, but it's not new.

"People change very slowly; tech changes very quickly," said Jeremy P Birnholtz, associate professor in the communication studies department at Northwestern University. "Everything we see online has usually happened somewhere else."

The end of intimacy

People have been avoiding (and hiding from) exes and have lacked the courage to end relationships the traditional way for ages. But in the digital world it can seem more abrupt as the constant communication and feed of information about their life—via Facebook, Twitter, texts and other methods—dries up immediately and without warning.

Some wonder, though, if the technological way of meeting people today—through apps and sites like Tinder, Plenty of Fish, Match and OK Cupid—removes part of the human connection. Rather than working up the courage to ask someone out, you pick them from a catalog, and if it doesn't work out, there's a near endless stream of other potential mates to choose from just one swipe away.

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It's an accusation that even some people behind some of those sites say is hard to argue with.

"In the real world, you have to make an effort when you go out, work up the nerve to approach someone you're interested in and be charming and personable," said Michael Manes, founder of Mixxxer, an app for no-strings-attached sexual connections. "With Mixxxer, you find lots of people at once and pick a bed partner with little effort, and some might argue that this can create a social disability in regards to future relationships."

Another seemingly new social app-driven behavioral change—mirror investing—isn't as new as it might seem. Started in the early 2000s, it has seen its usage slowly grow, with dedicated sites letting you link your trading account to that of another person.

The immediacy is new, but that's simply a refinement of an age-old market practice: following the moves of a successful trader in hopes of emulating their success.

Behind tech's shadow

The connected world's larger behavioral impact is more on how we interact with each other on a daily basis. A 2014 study—"The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices"—looked at the effects that phones have when people talk face-to-face. Observing 100 friendly couples having a 10-minute conversation while their phone was present, researchers noticed that the individuals still continued to fiddle with their phones. When those same couples conversed without a phone present, their conversations resulted in greater empathy.

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"Even when they are not in active use or buzzing, beeping, ringing, or flashing, [digital devices] are representative of people's wider social network and a portal to an immense compendium of information," read the report. "In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication, and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds. Their mere presence in a socio-physical milieu, therefore, has the potential to divide consciousness between the proximate and immediate setting and the physically distant and invisible networks and contexts."

Another study, published in The International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy in November 2014, notes that if one person in a relationship uses technology more than the other, that can result in feelings of insecurity.

"If one partner in a relationship disengages from a face-to-face interaction while engaging in technology ... the other partner may experience a sense of threat to their need to feel attached and in control in that relationship," it read.

So is this constantly connected world permanently affecting the way we interact with other humans? Birnholtz said it's much too early to make that sort of statement.

"Walk around a fraternity on Friday or Saturday night," he said. "To say [constantly connected college students] aren't into meeting each other is just not true. They're just doing it differently. People are still talking, but instead of going to the mall, they're talking on Facebook or Twitter. ... Yes, it can have a dehumanizing effect on the way we see people, but in terms of the moment you actually meet? That to me is really an open question."

—By Chris Morris, special to