[intro]PALESA MLAMBO put down her cell phone and took to the streets to find out what the public thinks of the use of cell phones and how it affects real life relationships.[/intro]

“If the internet connects us all… then why are so many of us becoming increasingly isolated?” – Stephen Richards

Art on Sundays is an event held every first Sunday of the month in Kagiso, Krugersdorp. Various artists are invited to showcase their talents and this month the headliner was musician, Lunga Duma.

As artists ascended and descended the stage sharing their work with the audience, I looked around and realised that the spectators were not engaged in the art at all. People were casually sitting in small groups and pairs around the stage; and half of them were on their cell phones instead of engaging with each other or the performances. The main purpose of attending any event these days it seems, has become to ‘check in’ on Facebook, and upload new pictures to Twitter or Instagram.

Of course, I too am a self-confessed cellphone addict. I spend over R200 on data weekly because I don’t have access to Wi-Fi at home. Wi-Fi on campus is limited to a few social media networks so that’s not much help. But I’ve also become dependant on social media. I upload photos, I blog (which eats up a lot of data!) and I run the Facebook page for my church group. But what does it mean when as a society we are so overloaded with information and live through our screens instead of being engaged in our own reality?

The cost of data has been a hot topic over the past few months. Siyabonga Cwele, the Minister of Telecommunications, recenty urged mobile network operators to reduce the cost of data. Lowering the cost of data even got a mention during the State of the Nation Address (SONA). And Fin24.com recently reported that Mzanzi has the second highest data prices among BRICS-member countries. But what are the negative impacts on our relationships with each other and our communities when it comes to the excessive use of our cellphones?

We don’t go anywhere without our cellphones and they are taking up time that could be invested in real, tangible relationships. Parents and children no longer discuss important family issues because they are preoccupied with texts and Facebook messages. Neighbours no longer visit each other to have conversations over a cup of tea like they used to in the old, cellphone free days. Even parties for young people are no longer the same because people don’t engage in conversations anymore. We update our statuses and chase ‘likes’ when we should be spending time with the people in our immediate space.

Tebogo Makama, a friend and fellow cellphone addict, shares my sentiments and says technology is taking over. In spaces where people should be getting to know each other and networking, they are glued to their cellphones instead. “It has become a norm that even businesses condone. There is free Wi-Fi in restaurants available for public consumption whereas a restaurant should be a place where people eat together and socialise, the availability of Wi-Fi encourages them to surf the internet instead of engaging with the people around them,” she said.

Thandeka Mbatha, an elder in my community said most people from the township use public transport to get to work but even then, people don’t talk to each other, not even a greeting. “It’s not just the youngsters anymore; older people have adopted the tendency of putting on headsets on the ride to work. If that doesn’t tell you there is a problem in our society, I don’t know what will,” she said.

The African proverb that says “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which means a person cannot survive without another, promotes the idea of love and caregiving among the human race. It is said that every generation has its own battle to overcome and if we are the generation of the information era, how do we begin to live our lives more consciously offline? I say this battle can be conquered; one genuine, offline, conversation at a time.