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Anti-social behavior becoming more common in everyday life

Published: Thursday, January 26, 2006

Updated: Thursday, March 3, 2011 16:03

When he left his home in Orlando, Fla., to attend New York University, Dante Lima quickly discovered a terrific use for his iPod, the portable music player that he and most of his fellow college students wear.

While walking down the streets of New York, Lima has found that when he wears his iPod headphones - known to iPod aficionados as "ear buds" - he can walk past the throng of sidewalk hucksters without being bothered.

"If you want to get away from them, just start listening to your iPod," said Lima, 20. "They don't approach people with headphones on."

Wearing headphones has become the modern equivalent of wearing a "Do Not Disturb" sign around one's neck.

Perhaps that's no surprise. The MP3 player is only the latest in a number of gadgets - starting with the Sony Walkman, leading to the cell phone and now the iPod - that give people the ability to close off the outside world.

From children to adults, Americans are becoming enchanted with technology. Shoppers chat on their cell phones, stopping only to talk briefly to a cashier. On trips, children watch films on portable DVD players or play on their GameBoys instead of playing license-tag bingo. On airline flights, passengers watch movies on laptop computers, answer e-mails on their BlackBerries or watch episodes of Lost on their video iPods, rather than chatting with the person in the next seat.

So is tuning out the rest of the world good for us? Could we miss meeting our soul mate because we are too busy listening to our headphones?
"We're living in a world where technology is a huge part of our lives, but it can be a blessing and a curse," said Palm Beach, Fla., etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. "Some people think this technology can make us more productive. But it's not helping us with social skills. It's alienating us from other people."

But many users of portable MP3 players say the devices help them relieve stress or, particularly at work, concentrate. "It's healthy to decompress yourself when you live in a chaotic, densely populated world," said Calvin Squires, 32, of Orlando, a recent iPod convert.

UNINTENDED SNUB
This social-snubbing by the ear-bud enthusiasts isn't intentional, of course.

When Troy Branson, who works at Orlando ad agency Say It Loud!, traveled home for the holidays, he watched an episode of the TV show Lost that he had downloaded. "When you're not flying Song or JetBlue, your options are magazines and magazines," Branson said.
And though he didn't mean to be antisocial, he didn't want to share his new video iPod.

"I found myself being kind of protective of it," said Branson, 40. "I didn't want the guy next to me watching my show."

WHERE'S THE HARM?
Beyond the realm of advertising agencies, where MP3 players have become part of the scenery, many workplaces have no formal policy about their use.

The danger, said one sociologist, is that we start losing touch with the people in our lives - even if it's just the cashier - because we won't get off the phone or take off headphones to exchange pleasantries.

Studies show that these mini-conversations - with the same woman at the coffee shop each morning or the regular banter with the guy who owns the gas station - are important to our psychological well-being.

"If you have a regular routine and you go back to the same places, your day can be filled up with these short contacts with people you see regularly," said Richard Lachmann, sociology professor at the University of Albany. "People who don't have that are really missing something."

Evidence suggests, said Lachmann, that these little interactions throughout the day help us cope with the stresses of everyday life and give us a feeling of community that is "as much good as having a bunch of cousins who live nearby."

"If people lose that," Lachmann said, "it's going to become a big problem."

BRUSHOFF, PART 2
Still, the fuss about the iPod strikes some as much ado about nothing.

Although he admits that "we go around in a kind of fog of technological insulation," cultural historian Timothy Burke said most Americans already avoid making eye contact on planes, trains and, in particular, elevators.

"Before the iPod, in subways or on buses, people carried books or newspapers. Or they looked at the ground," said Burke, a professor at Swarthmore College.

"In that way, there's nothing novel about the iPod. It's just one more way of controlling the social space around you."

Kai Kravit, 19, a freshman at the University of Central Florida and an avowed iPod user said, "I think it's important not to brush people off and act as if we're just a big colony of bugs," he said. "Conversation is still important."

c 2006, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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