I have long been a keen observer, and often a critic, of Americans’ obsession (some would say addiction) with smartphones and social media. I am fascinated by this compelling sociological phenomenon; I find myself reading everything I can to understand it. I also find myself keenly alert to the phenomenon as I go through my day – teaching at the college where I have taught for 34 years; observing people in restaurants and other public places like supermarkets, establishing my dinner table as a “cell phone-free” area, and a myriad of other places.
Recently, my wife and I observed a young girl (probably about 10 years of age) sitting with her mom and dad at a restaurant in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, phone in hand, and completely disconnected from her parents. I could not help but notice that in the approximately one hour that we sat across from this young girl, her eyes did not leave her phone for more than a few seconds at a time, mostly to impassively respond to a question from her mom or dad. She even managed to do this as she ate her lunch. This, of course, is not at all uncommon today in most restaurants.
However, the experience I had earlier this week at the gym topped any I have observed in years. Brace yourself…this is a true story. I swim several times each week, usually between 40-70 laps of the pool. It is my time to completely relax away from work, daily concerns, and maybe most importantly, technology. I get into my “Zen” in a big way.
I always take water with me and place it at the end of the lane so that I can refresh myself after 20 or so laps. I did that today, and happened to catch a bright, shiny object out of the corner of my eye. A young woman two lanes over from me had her smartphone in a Ziploc bag, placed on the tile at the end of the swim lane. She seemed to stop every after every lap to scroll through her email messages, through the Ziploc bag! I knew at that moment that I had witnessed the ultimate in cell phone addiction. My immediate thought was something along the lines of, “When someone goes to the gym to swim laps, is that not the place to leave your troubles, worries, and cell phone behind? Apparently not.
Much has been written of late on this subject. Sociologist and clinical psychologist, Sherry Turkle, has studied the relationship between people and technology for many years. In her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, she points out some interesting and disturbing trends. The following is a small sample of multiple observations, supported by empirically-based ethnographic evidence:
1. “Technology is implicated in an assault on empathy.” There has been a 40% reduction in empathy among college students during the past twenty years as measured by standard psychological tests. Researchers have attributed this to less eye-to-eye contact among students.
2. There has been a loss in the “empathetic arts” – learning to make eye contact, to listen, and to attend to others.
3. Teachers increasingly observe that students do not make eye contact, do not respond to body language, have difficulty listening, and seem to be less interested in each other – all potential initial signs of “being on the Asperger’s spectrum” according to Turkle.
4. Research indicates that many lovers prefer to “talk” by editing messages on their phones; families tend to avoid face-to-face conversation and address family conflicts digitally to avoid the stress of direct human contact.
5. Smartphone users sometimes refer to their digital device as “my tiny God,” and use social media platforms like Facebook to “perform” and paint an only positive image of themselves.
6. Children, at very early ages, are increasingly showing frustration as they compete with smartphones for their parents’ attention. On the one hand, parents admonish their children for constant use of smartphones when, in fact, parents often check their phones during dinner at home, at restaurants, and many other places.
7. Teens and college students openly admit to applying “the rule of three” to their social interactions when they are out at dinner with their friends. That rule implies that if there are at least three friends sitting at the table who are NOT on their smartphone, that gives implicit permission to check your phone.
8. Millennials openly express the fact that they suffer from “disconnection anxiety” if they do not have their “little God” beside them at all times and will do almost anything to avoid “boredom” or lulls in conversation by checking their smartphone.
9. College students readily admit to feeling more vulnerable interacting with friends and lovers in person; they admit to retreating to their smartphone to reduce what they see as unnecessary human interpersonal interaction and what some see as “the rigors of a phone call.”
10. Turkle’s research further reveals that baby bouncers and potty seats now come with a slot to hold a cell phone; a quarter of teens in America check their phones within five minutes of waking up; the average number of texts made by teens in a day is 100; 80 percent of teens sleep with their phones; 40 percent never unplug from their devices, even during religious services, exercising, or playing a sport.
11. A phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out”) is commonplace among young people. Turkle defines it as “tensions that follow from knowing so much about the lives of others because of social media. You develop self-doubt from knowing so many of your friends are having enviable fun.”
A recent Bank of America report, “Trends in Consumer Mobility,” states that 71 percent of all Americans (adults and teens) say they sleep with or next to their mobile phone; 3 percent of those people said they sleep with their device in their hand; 13 percent said they keep it on the bed, and 55 percent leave it on the nightstand. Incredibly, the survey revealed that Americans consider their smartphone more important than sex and 20% of those 18-34 years of age admit to checking their phones DURING sex.
The list goes on…Suffice it to say that we have a problem with over-use and abuse of smartphones. On the one hand, smartphones and, to some extent, social media, have connected us digitally, yet separated us emotionally. It has strained our relationships with others, significantly reduced levels of empathy towards others, caused us to avoid face-to-face interpersonal contact; damaged the ability of children and others to read facial gestures, body language, and subtle signs of human emotion; and it has the potential to alienate children from society and place them in an unrealistic virtual world where problem solving can be accomplished with the press of a button.
Is there a correlation between cell phone use and the rise in rates of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome? Is there a correlation between cell phone use and the dramatic rise in school violence, digital alienation, mental health issues, teen suicide rates, and other social maladies? Is it affecting the stability of the family? Is it resulting in miscommunication in the workplace? Is it impacting other institutions critical to societal stability?
Again, has it connected us digitally but separated us emotionally? Much has been said here and elsewhere regarding the problem. The question in my mind is, what are the solutions? We might start with stronger parenting, and adults who model appropriate human interaction as their children are maturing and watching how their parents conduct their own lives.
As always, I welcome your civil, educated thoughts and comments.