Unhealthy obsession with technology, even in the gym, leaves us with no energy to form real friendships

Kelly Yang says our dependence on gadgets is affecting our ability to form meaningful friendships, leading to loneliness - and websites where people can now rent a friend

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2015, 4:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 November, 2015, 5:01pm

After eight blissful years away from the gym, I recently broke down and rejoined. I'm not a gym person by nature. My idea of a good workout is a hike in the woods.

However, my aunt recently got osteoporosis in her knee and watching her go through that reminded me of the importance of strength training and doing weight-bearing exercises so, somewhat reluctantly, I signed up.

Eight years is a long time to not be in any game, especially the gym game. In the time I've been gone, gyms have become ridiculously posh. They now come with free T-shirts, shorts, socks, fruit, water, Wi-fi and a range of charging options for your gadgets. Left your gadget at home? No problem - they'll lend you an iPod. Seeing all this, I seriously considered giving up my apartment and moving in to the gym.

As I began my workout, I quickly realised what else was different compared with eight years ago: everyone was glued to their phones. Leg press machines were mere lounge chairs for texting, flat benches convenient bases for Snapchatting. On the ab machine, I saw very little crunching - only Facebooking.

Personal trainers are expensive. Why spend HK$600 an hour just to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones?

It got to the point where I almost couldn't exercise. As I sat waiting for everyone to finish taking selfies so that I could actually use the machines, I started watching the many personal trainers around me with their clients. Eight years ago, personal trainers were a rarity. Now, they're practically a prerequisite for joining the gym. I took this to be a sign of their superior skill and effectiveness when it comes to exercise, but, to my surprise, a lot of the people with personal trainers weren't working out either.

Instead, they were just standing there chatting - talking about their date and the latest movie they saw. I couldn't understand it. Personal trainers are expensive. Why spend HK$600 an hour just to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones?

READ MORE: Web-mad Hongkongers have digital dementia - and we're losing our memories

It dawned on me that perhaps we've become so dependent on all this technology, so used to communicating via a screen, that we no longer have the time, patience or energy for real friendships. And now, when we feel the urge to talk to a real human being, live, maybe it's easier to book a person rather than track down a real friend. Is that where the future is heading?

A new website, www.rentafriend.com seems to think so. It allows you to do just that - rent a friend. According to the website, there are more than 526,000 such "friends" from all around the world for hire, including many here in Hong Kong. For HK$80 per hour, you can rent these people to hang out with, watch a movie or go shopping with you.

Such websites are capitalising on the surge of loneliness in recent years. According to Time Magazine, loneliness may be the next big public health issue. A new study by Brigham Young University in the US found that loneliness increased the chance of early death by 30 per cent. That's on a par with obesity.

Whether or not we can solve the loneliness problem with technology remains to be seen, when arguably it is that very technology that is causing the problem. I remain sceptical.

Five frustrating gym sessions later, I decided to ditch the clean towels for some clean(ish) air: I went on a hike. However, just as I was about to set off, a fellow hiker came up from behind. He was an elderly man carrying a radio which was blasting out 1990s music. For the next 90 minutes or so, we hiked the trail together and I had to listen to Celine Dion belting out her greatest hits. It was annoying as heck, albeit a different kind of annoying - a more familiar one.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk