If you’re reading this, I assume that, like me, you’re already acquainted with the benefits of owning a smartphone. You may even be reading this article on one. However, despite the advantages of this technology, many of us believe that our increasing reliance on smartphones is having deleterious effects on our social fabric.
Most of us wouldn’t wish to go back in time when smartphones didn’t exist, but many of us are still trying to reconcile what it means to live a life and have smartphone technology be part of that life. Smartphones are great, but like with any innovative technology, the benefits also come with unforeseen dilemmas.
Today, we lament over how texting complicates relationships and whether we’re becoming less empathic as a society. We even have terms for new widespread social issues, such as ghosting and fear of missing out. Political outrage and social intolerance adorn the home page of our facebook account. Singles wonder if online dating has actually enhanced our ability to choose love, or if we simply have too many options to choose and settle on anyone at all. Couples wonder if looking through their partner’s cell phone will ultimately lead to the end of their relationship.
Basically, we wonder if the more our society gets “connected” via smartphones, if we are actually becoming more disconnected from each other and the world around us.
Why are we so reliant on smartphones? How are smartphones changing human behavior? Are human relationships changing because of smartphones? These are just a few of the common questions many of us grapple with. This post is dedicated to trying to understand these questions more deeply.
First, let’s consider what a smartphone actually does, and then analyze how and why we use smartphones the way that we do…
A SMARTPHONE IS LIKE A PSYCHOLOGICAL MIRROR
I don’t know if it’s ever been said quite like this before, but a smartphone is basically designed to function like a psychological mirror. You know how even your closest friends or partners can be protective of what’s on their phone? Yeah, that’s because asking someone to see their phone is like asking someone if it’s okay to read their mind. For many of us, what appears on our smartphone screen is a mirror reflection of our most private thoughts. Just look at your Google search engine history to see what you’ve been thinking about.
In the past, our fantasies were just invisible thoughts. Fantasy life lived inside the imagination. Today, daydreaming has a touchscreen! Our minds can interact with smartphones so that we can virtually see our imagination appear before us on a screen. Don’t like that song? Click, and here comes a new one. Don’t want to respond to your maternal grandmother’s neighbor whose cat bit you last Christmas? Okay, you definitely ignore that text. Feeling depressed that smartphones are altering society? Quick, look up something cute and entertaining, like a group of Corgis having a race. Here, I’ll even let you pause to check it out…
Okay, that was pretty cute, right? Anyway, right…smartphones…
Although smartphones are largely designed to give a mirror experience of the private mind, we have also started using smartphones to avoid what is happening in our mind. Uncomfortable feelings, such as boredom and impatience, now have an apparent distraction.
Smartphones are no longer just about convenience. We are increasing our reliance on smartphones for coping and entertainment. Our smartphones get us through feelings of exclusion in social settings, or even feelings of too much closeness, such as in an elevator, while standing in line at Starbucks, or when using public transportation. We don’t just use smartphones to enhance reality. We can use smartphones to avoid reality too.
Reality can be emotionally unpleasant, awkward, and downright painful. Psychologists often frame addiction behavior as an attempt to disconnect from reality, because facing reality has become too difficult. According to psychological research, some people feel separation anxiety when they’re not able to attend to their smartphone. Like any drug, we can also use smartphones to try and create new feelings inside of us. You know that Corgi race made you smile.
The thing is, whether we’re talking about substance abuse or smartphones, no matter what benefits some defense mechanism gives us, defense mechanisms also carry a maladaptive side. The more inflexible a defense mechanism becomes, the more that conflict may develop as a result.
We all feel that a lot has been shifting in our social milieu, and that smartphones have at least played some significant role in it. “People just don’t communicate like they used to” has become our frequent adage.
We know that smartphones are like a psychological mirror of our private fantasy life, and that we also use these devices to cope with reality at times, but none of us probably ever imagined that a device intended to facilitate connection could alter how we connect so drastically.
When we text, we have the option to hold off on responding. We can control what we say. We can design an impression of how we’re feeling. We can measure our reaction. If we really want to, we can make it so that the recipient of our communication forms an entirely different perception of us that is different than from what we are actually feeling. This is quite different than a phone conversation or face-to-face interaction where we have less control and more spontaneity, and others can pick up on our authentic feelings more easily.
We know that increasing control over how we are perceived is not limited to texting. On social media platforms, we only share what the unspoken rules permit us to share. No one sees the truly vulnerable moments of a relationship; only the best vacation selfies. And even though we know social media is not “real life,” it sure does inspire real reactions inside of all of us. Dare I suggest that you do a Twitter search on #trump?
Smartphones appeal to our psychological weaknesses – our avoidance of intimacy, our fear of being alone, our anxiety of difficult conversations, our escape from the casual discomforts of everyday living, and really, our not wanting to sit feelings of boredom or uncertainty. Over the long-term, the more we rely on our smartphones to alter reality, the more we may lose the type of psychological fitness that reality requires for a stable identity or for intimacy that is fulfilling and durable.
Unlike our smartphones, we are not merely content-based machines. We are complex, emotional creatures. We are complete with anxiety, and we have sought ways to avoid anxiety as long as we have been alive. And while smartphones may relieve our anxiety short-term, we’re realizing more each day just some of the ways in which it may be affecting our social world long-term.
Here are just some examples most of us are beginning to recognize as some potential long-term social effects of our reliance on smartphones.
Loss of empathy. The more we get used to living in a virtual reality that we control, the harder it becomes to tolerate the reality that we don’t control. We are becoming more reactive, both on and offline, and especially to other people who hold opinions and beliefs that differ from our own. Our patience appears to be dwindling.
False impressions of reality. Fantasy is not the same as reality, although the two realms influence each other. As an example, couples who deal with affairs often report that technology played a role in infidelity. At first, flirting through texting may be rationalized as innocent, since “nothing physical is taking place,” but the shaping of a very real relationship is taking place anytime another person is involved. After all, the mind is where we fall in love. And while not all flirting through texting will lead all of us into a full-blown affair, playing with fire can and eventually will get someone burned.
Dehumanization and loneliness. Many of us turn to our smartphones when we do to connect to someone or something, and we disconnect from our immediate reality in front of us. Paradoxically, the more we turn away from reality and stare for stretches at a touchscreen, the weaker our social skills become over time. This can create a cycle where, at first, we use smartphones to avoid feeling anxious or alone, and eventually, we start using smartphones because we don’t even know how to be alone anymore. Will there come a point where we are so used to turning to our smartphones that we feel like we have forgotten how to turn to each other?
The illusion of control. We can swipe anonymously, view pornography privately, stalk someone from a distance, and even expecting parents can use an app to swipe privately on baby names until they match on choices, just to avoid conflict. The thing is, conflict is often an opportunity for growth! Building intimacy requires that we surrender of control. Sure, trying to control anxiety through smartphone use has an instant effect, but long-term, we may be missing out on developing crucial interpersonal skills that make conflict more tolerable and build intimacy. Strangely then, the more control we attempt to gain through a virtual reality, the more out of control we might actually become.
HOW WILL WE ADAPT?
Smartphones are not going away. We wouldn’t want them to. But as human beings, we have variegated emotional and psychological experiences, and for better or worse, we are relying more on our smartphones to mediate the challenges of everyday living, especially the challenges of social conflict.
Paradoxically, smartphones can exacerbate social issues. Only now are we are having to contend ourselves with trying to understand the unforeseen long-term effects of a smartphone culture on our social world.
For all of the instruction manuals available on how to operate a smartphone, there is still no instruction manual for our social and individual lives. If we don’t think through these issues ourselves, who or what will think through these issues for us?