I thought I had seen it all…until today.

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.


About Dr. Ralph G. Perrino

Biography: Doctorate, Education, George Mason University, 1998; Masters Degree, Public Administration, George Mason University, 1980; Graduate study, Sociology, University of North Carolina 1971-74; Bachelor's Degree, Sociology, Catawba College, 1971. Associate Professor, Sociology, Northern Virginia Community College, 1984 - present; Founder and Director, Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, LLC, 1995 - 2018; 35 years teaching, coaching, mentoring, and tutoring experience with elementary through college-age students. Founder and Board President of Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (1986-1998); Board President, Residential Program Center (1998-2009); Chairman, Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce (2009-2011); Vice Chairman, Fairfax Partnership for Youth, 2010 – 2016, Board Member, David M. Brown Planetarium, 2010 – 2018; Advisory Board, David M. Brown Planetarium, 2018; Board Member, Creative Cauldron Theatre Company, 2012 – present; Co-President, Faction of Fools Theater Company, 2016 – present; Board Member, The Hub Theater Company, 2018 - present; Washington Independent Services for Educational Resources (WISER) past president and Board member, 2001 – 2015. Outstanding Citizen Award, Arlington County Public Schools, 1992; Nominated for Outstanding Citizen Award, Arlington County Public Schools, 2005; Arlington School Administrators 2006 Civic Award; Arlington County James B. Hunter Community Hero Award, 2009; Northern Virginia Community College Outstanding Service to the College Award, 2012; Jean C. Netherton Award of Excellence, Northern Virginia Community College. 2016.
Uncategorized. 11 Comments


11 Responses to I thought I had seen it all…until today.

  1. Avatar Anwar Y. Dunbar, Ph.D. says:

    Greetings Ralph.  I hate to say this, but I'm guilty of some of this.  I do sleep with it on the bed, thought the ringer is off.  The devices have become a part of us unfortunately but I do try also retain my ability to communicate the old fashioned way.  I'm absolutely going to share this in my networks.  Awesome piece.

    • Avatar DrPerrino says:


      Interesting…Your comment, “…but I do try also retain my ability to communicate the old fashioned way” is an interesting way of putting it. The fact that you, and others, view face-to-face communication as “old fashioned” has sociological implications.  Every generation brings with it a new set of “values” that reflect that generation’s evolution. However, through the process of social reproduction, the values of previous generations are transferred primarily through the family, but also through other agents of socialization such as school, religious institutions, etc.

      The introduction of a new set of values should  not imply that the values of previous generations should be discarded entirely. Certainly, there are some values from previous generations (racism and racial superiority, sexism, antiquated views on handicapped people, etc.) that are worthy of rejection. Other values may be of importance to current and future generations, such as the value of marriage and family stability, financial thrift and saving, etc.  

      So, my questions to you are, is it “old fashioned” to embrace peace and tranquility in one’s life and to feel in control of one’s daily affairs? Is that a core value that should be discarded?  Is it a requirement that we are digitally connected twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?  Is self-reflection and introspection a thing of the past? Are we hiding behind technology to avoid interacting with others and, if so, is that good for our personal mental health and for the collective health of any society?

      My suggestion?  Put the phone on the dining room table and get a good night’s sleep!

  2. Avatar Joan Sherman says:

    Ralph – You & I are soul-mates about this pet-peeve. While technology certainly has it's advantages, it's gotten out of control …. lack of boundaries, rudeness and inability to be "present" (that's just a start). As a job-search coach, I echo your comments particularly regarding millennials and the negative impact smartphones, iPads, iWatches are having on commincations skills and relationships. Enjoy and feel free to share these two timely YouTube videos (Millennial Job Interview & Technology Shabbat): 






    • Avatar DrPerrino says:


      I have always said that technology has a place in our daily lives and it plays a vital role in the world economy. That has been true since the invention of the printing press. In the 20th century, electricity, the telegraph, the automobile, telephone, photography, film, radio, television, aircraft, space travel, air conditioning and a myriad of other technological advances all drove the world economy and enhanced and enriched our lives. More importantly, they augmented the social structure in which we found ourselves, mostly in a positive way. Unlike the Internet and social media, they did not consume our every waking minute. They also did not separate us; rather, they mostly served as a unifying element in society.

      The Internet and social media are different in that they have connected us digitally but separated us emotionally.. The short-term implications of this are around us every single day – at work, at home, in restaurants, in theaters, in places of worship, in our classrooms, in the public square and, apparently in our bedrooms!  We have begun to see the short-term implications of smartphone abuse. We have yet to experience the long-term implications of excessive Internet and social media use, but we are beginning to see its negative manifestations. People need to step back and take a look at themselves and what they have become. I think that if they do, they will be alarmed at the direction they are heading with technology. The nation needs to get a technological grip! Our individual mental health, and our cohesiveness as a nation are at stake.
      p.s. As you can see, this is really more than a pet peeve to me!

  3. Avatar TM says:

    Outstanding article addressing desperately needed analysis and social observation –especially on a topic that most people nowadays recognize (but apparently have treated as delicately as a taboo)   Exposing and analyzing our society's addictive cellphone behavior, one which elevates the cellphone to a god-like status, has been long overdue.  Thank you for writing this article.  Perhaps spreading the word will help tear down this "altar."  

    • Avatar RALPH PERRINO says:


      I sure hope I have begun discussion on this topic. You are correct…It does seem to be a topic that is treated as taboo – an almost God-like, sacrosanct practice that is seemingly untouchable. Your use of the term "altar" to describe this phenomenon is particularly interesting. I have noticed that when I tell people that I do not own a smartphone, that I have no desire to own one, and that I feel free and liberated because I have control of my life, they look at me with astonished disbelief, and actually ask me how I manage to function without one. It is as if I had just told them that I actually interact with humanity on a face-to-face basis, something all too few people are skilled at doing these days. The question is, how do we break this cycle of digital detachment and impersonality. THAT is the challenge for all of us.

  4. Avatar Katharine Bovino says:

    I read this with my head shaking and my eyes widening, especially over the story of the woman in the pool. Really??!! People can't disconnect and enjoy their own thoughts and company? 

    I responded emphatically to your statement that social media has connected us digitally, but separated us emotionally. As a fellow teacher and human, I see countless examples of this daily. I have refused to be on Facebook for that very reason. I would hope if people care about each other enough, they would personally share information about their lives with each other. I also go out to eat with people for the shared conversation with THEM, not someone on a phone. Unfortunately, I see this as a never ending problem…one I refuse to be a part of.

    Love reading your thoughts, Ralph. This is a good use of the medium!

    • Avatar DrPerrino says:


      I agree. It is shocking and disconcerting. I often joke and tell people that it often reminds me of the old ’50’s science fiction film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where “pods” from an alien world take over the minds and bodies of Earthlings. It seems that people have been co-opted by alien pods. It is a humorous thought, of course, but this is really no joking matter.

      I firmly believe that much of the miscommunication and misunderstanding that is taking place throughout society is, in part, the result of an excessive reliance on technology. We see it in our education system, our personal lives, our professional lives, and in the public square in places like Congress and even the White House. Can you imagine what shape the country would have been in had George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt had social media at their disposal during periods of national crisis?

      And, yes, we have undoubtedly become connected digitally and separated emotionally. Having said that, Denise and I owe you a phone call. Your phone number is literally taped to the kitchen cabinet with a note that reads “call Kathy B.!”  We promise to do that very soon…

      Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and comment on it. And, by the way, please feel free to mention it to friends and colleagues. I am trying to get the word out as much as possible.



  5. Avatar RALPH PERRINO says:


    Thanks for the reply. My purpose in writing this piece was to bring awareness to exactly what you have noted. When I discuss this with friends and family, I continually hear responses like, "I know I am guilty of this, and I know I need to monitor myself, but it is SO difficult to do."  Or, "Yea, I know, but it is what it is…We are all going to have to live with it as part of our fast-paced, connected society."  Or, "Yes, I see it all the time myself, and it concerns me."  No one, however, has told me that they have any intention of giving up their phone for the peace and solitude that life can bring when we are not continually connected to our "Tiny Gods."


    p.s. I owe you a call.- yes, an actual phone call.  I have your number in multiple places and everytime I go to call you, it is outside the hours you provided me. I will try, I promise!

  6. Avatar JD Leonard says:

    Excellent and on point, Ralph.  I began noticing this myself as I observed families out to dinner, and all four of them were looking at their phones. 

    I am guilty myself of some of the examples listed. I enjoy remaining, somewhat, connected, especially now that I live in the "country".  

    I pray a new and widespread awareness may come to our collective consciences to call us to renewed "need" for the personal "touch".

  7. Avatar RALPH PERRINO says:

    Testing 123

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