Smart Phone: Social or not Social? Friend or Foe?

The true answer is probably “all.”

In many ways, smartphones make the world a smaller place. I still marvel at the ability to text, call, or even video chat with people all over the world. Using social media platforms, I can engage in lively exchange with people worldwide while lite rally anyone on the platform can comment.

If you are naturally social, smartphones can help you check in and create meaningful social connections. For people who are shy or less socially adept, smartphones can help build the comfort and trust needed to overcome social shyness and make connections with others.

As great as smartphones are in helping people connect, the paradoxical flip-side is that they also have diminished the quality of human connection. People can become so absorbed in their phones that they retreat from anything but superficial or fleeting social interaction. Or, when interacting face-to-face, they can be so profoundly distracted that they are only partially “there.” In some extreme cases, phones can become substitutes for face-to-face interactions. Why go to the trouble to meet up when it’s so easy, convenient, and fast just to text or FaceTime?

Problems with Smartphones

Once we start turning to smartphones as a substitute for social interactions, even when we are actually in close physical proximity or engage in conversation; or bouncing between a smartphone and the people whose physical presence we share, things can become problematic.

MIT Sociologist Sherry Turkle, author of the book Reclaiming Conversation, conducts research on the impact of technology on society. She feels that:

Cell phones make us promises that are like gifts from a benevolent genie—that we will never have to be alone, that we will never be bored, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be, and that we can multitask, which is perhaps the most seductive of all. That ability to put your attention wherever you want it to be has become the thing people want most in their social interactions—that feeling that you don’t have to commit yourself 100 percent and you can avoid the terror that there will be a moment in an interaction when you’ll be bored.

The danger is that avoiding the pressures and expectations of face-to-face interactions can become endemic. Living out emotions, being wholly present to another person, and even risking boredom are important to healthy human interaction. Those shared moments create meaning for us. We learn things about ourselves and about others by looking into another person’s eyes and viewing the world through their eyes.

Ms. Turkle suggests that smartphones also can have a gatekeeping quality. Placing a phone on the table at which we’re sitting with another person sends several strong messages. It says, for example, that our attention is not wholly dedicated to the other person because we’re on alert to notice the phone ringing or a text coming in. A phone on the table can set a boundary on the depth of sharing because it suggests that broaching emotionally significant topics may be interrupted in favor of calls or texts.

What of empathy? What of deep listening…of opening and turning to another person?

For Turkel, this is a danger of smartphone ubiquity.

True conversations according to Professor Turkle, are where “empathy is born” and where “intimacy is born.”

In other words, the quality of face-to-face communication is crucial to healthy, meaningful socialization.

What can you do to ensure that smartphones do not intrude on those moments that may offer you meaningful human connection?

Reclaim Face-To-Face Communication

Probably the most important thing you can do is recognize that your smartphone can diminsh the quality of your interpersonal interactions.

Awareness is the first step. Then, you can take action with simple steps to reclaim and revitalize face-to-face interactions:

  • During conversation, keep your phone out of sight so you aren’t tempted by it, nor do you signal that you’ll allow interruption.
  • Help family and friends put aside the phone during conversations. Be gentle and respectful. Instead of scolding, think of being a gracious host who invites the other person into meaningful conversation. With a spouse, for example, start by saying “I love you. You don’t have to get rid of the phone, just put the phone away right now while we’re talking so we can really focus on each other.”
  • Ask yourself what you really want. How important is it to be up on the latest news, gossip, or Facebook post? What is the quality of the relationship you want to create? What humans crave is feeling heard and understood. So, feed your relationships by making interactions primary.
  • If social media is part of your job, recognize that your role in life is more than your job. Honor your role as a parent, friend, lover, or caring adult child. Nurture the relationship by focusing on the conversation.
  • Empathize with the people with whom your interacting by listening deeply, focusing your attention on them, making eye contact, concentrating on hearing both their words and the story behind the words. Join them in their life story.

Our smartphones give us the ability to make quick reservations, talk to people in ways we never would have been able to just a few years ago, fire off quick messages to let important people in our lives know we’re thinking of them, and get an Uber almost anywhere.

But, there is also the very real danger that what we gain in convenience may cost us in our ability to nurture healthy, enduring relationships…relationships that reflect moments of intimacy, joy, intense interest, and yes…even boredom.

Being aware of the trade-offs. Set up some simple rules for face-to-face interactions that enable you to navigate the risks and enjoy the advantages of the smartphone revolution.

Please share with us what your plans are for this holiday season. How will you maximize connections, both digitally and face-to-face?