While many, myself included, have declared a leadership crisis in America, the root cause of what ails our nation – and its ultimate fate – lies entirely in our hands or, more accurately, our eyeballs.

Consider Facebook’s (FB) recent acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion – the biggest price tag ever for a Silicon Valley company. But why? Why the crazy money for a startup with miniscule revenue and just 55 employees?

The global messaging platform has 450 million monthly active users, a key metric known in tech circles as MAU, and 70% of them use the service every day. WhatsApp’s users actually send an average of 19 billion messages, 600 million photos, and 100 million videos, daily.

In technical terms, that means its user engagement is off the charts. Sending and receiving an average of 120 messages per user per day is a lot, but in terms of online user engagement, that’s just the tip of the virtual iceberg. 

Last I heard, Twitter (TWTR) has about 240 million MAUs sending 500 million tweets per day. And, at last count, Facebook had 1.19 Billion MAUs that spend a ridiculous amount of time immersed in the site.

Just last week, LinkedIn announced that it’s going to open up its influencer program to all 250 million of its registered users. The business network’s head of content says the average post gets 31,000 views, 250 likes, and 80 comments. He calls that a “remarkably high level of engagement,” and he’s certainly right about that.  

The aggregate user engagement among those four companies alone is sort of mind-boggling, but that’s what social media is all about. When you see people immersed in their mobile gadgets, there’s a good chance that’s what they’re doing … but that’s by no means all they’re doing.

Add to that the enormous amount of time we spend playing games; listening to music; doing who-knows-what with millions of apps; plus reading, viewing, and commenting on the terabytes of content published online every day, and you know what you get?

Five hours a day, every day, engaged in the digital world.

According to eMarketer, the average U.S. adult spent a bit more time in the digital world than watching television for the first time last year. But get this: We’re not watching less television. That’s right. The experts say we now spend an average of 10 hours a day with our eyes glued to some sort of screen, roughly split between digital and TV.

So here’s what I’m wondering. What exactly was everyone engaged in before we all became so engaged in the digital world? Said another way, what have we disengaged with in order to become more engaged with our gadgets? What price have we paid in the name of user engagement?

That’s the virtual elephant in the room that nobody wants to see.

Let’s step away from the numbers for a moment and be honest with ourselves. We haven’t suddenly, magically expanded the amount of time in a day that we’re engaged in activities. We spend about the same amount of time sleeping and working. Truth is, we’re spending the majority of what’s left as users, engaged in the virtual world.    

And that means we’re less engaged – perhaps far less engaged – in what’s actually going on inside us and around us. We’re less engaged in our work. We’re less engaged in our families. We’re less engaged in our culture. We’re less engaged in how we run our government. We’re less engaged in relaxing, chilling, being lost in thought and our feelings.

Truth is, we’re far less engaged in everything that really matters.

If you can see that, then it’s certainly not a stretch to see that maybe, just maybe, our lack of engagement in what really matters has played a significant role in the deterioration of our families, our educational system, and the fiscal and ethical functioning of our federal, state, and municipal governments.  

Maybe, just maybe, our lack of engagement in what really matters is a root cause of the ever-growing laundry list of problems we face as a nation and as a culture. You know what I’m talking about:

- Our ever-expanding government, regulations, entitlement spending, debt, and deficit.

- Our broken tax code, healthcare system, educational system, and immigration system.

- The deterioration of our families and inner cities.

- Our growing entitlement culture.

- The alarming health and obesity epidemic.

- Our growing belief in pseudoscience.

Not to mention our increasingly divided populace, dysfunctional federal government, and lack of personal responsibility, accountability, and ethics at all levels.

Most alarming of all is that the situation isn’t static. These enormous and growing problems eat away at our culture like hungry cancer cells. Meanwhile, we spend more and more time engaged in the virtual world and less and less time engaged in facing and solving our problems. In the real world, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.

Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.