I’m pretty certain this will not be the first time you have heard or thought this, but quite possibly our biggest barrier to good social connection right now is our reliance on our phone.
The majority of us really, myself included, really love our phones.
It’s not a difficult stretch to say that most of us are dependent or ‘addicted’ to our smart device. We might not be injecting illegal substances or drowning ourselves in alcohol, but we are almost all dependent on this object in one way or another. ‘Addiction’ is (in essence) dependence on something that keeps our emotions at bay: it is (more broadly) any and every routine we deploy to avoid a fair and frank encounter with our own minds.
We use our phone a lot, yes. And we use them for a lot of things. Often we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement. The phone offers us reprieve. Games, online shopping, social media. Distraction that fits neatly in the palm of our hand.
We are dependent on our phones not because we rely on them, but to the extent that we might use them as a coping mechanism for self-avoidance. They do not intent to hurt us. And they may not. But they probably will. They are so incredibly good at taking us away from ourselves. If there’s anywhere a lot of us don’t want to be, it’s with ourselves. And unless we can connect with ourselves and our own emotions for what they are, we’re really going to struggle truly connecting with others.
Secondly, the mere presence of a device can affect how we are relating to others. We don’t even need to be paying it any attention.
Przybylski and Weinstein asked pairs of strangers to discuss a moderately intimate topic (an interesting event that had occurred to them within the last month) for 10 minutes. The strangers left their own belongings in a waiting area and proceeded to a private booth. Within the booth, they found two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away, out of their direct line of vision, there was a desk that held a book and one other item. Unbeknownst to the pair, the key difference in their interactions would be the second item on the desk. Some pairs engaged in their discussion with a nondescript cell phone nearby, whereas other pairs conversed while a pocket notebook lay nearby. After they finished the discussion, each of the strangers completed questionnaires about the relationship quality (connectedness) and feelings of closeness they had experienced. The pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.
Przybylski and Weinstein followed up with a new experiment to see, in which contexts, the presence of a cell phone matters the most. This time, each pair of strangers was assigned a casual topic (their thoughts and feelings about plastic trees) or a meaningful topic (the most important events of the past year) to discuss — again, either with a cell phone or a notebook nearby. After their 10-minute discussion, the strangers answered questions about relationship quality, their feelings of trust, and the empathy they had felt from their discussion partners.
The presence of the cell phone had no effect on relationship quality, trust, and empathy, but only if the pair discussed the casual topic. In contrast, there were significant differences if the topic was meaningful. The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse. The pairs also reported feeling less trust and thought that their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.
Thus, interacting in a neutral environment, without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy — the building-blocks of relationships. Past studies have suggested that because of the many social, instrumental, and entertainment options phones afford us, they often divert our attention from our current environment, whether we are speeding down a highway or sitting through a meeting. The new research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect, inhibiting our ability to connect with the people right next to us. Cell phone usage may even reduce our social consciousness.
In principle, we want to have good relationships and social connections. We love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable.
Our phone, on the other hand, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes. It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their play-by-play of today’s golf results. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with how much the signed John Lennon print is going to go for on ebay or how many likes our last Instagram post received. Only the former will, in the long-run, be a lot more important – as we know.
Perhaps, the ongoing questions need to be – who am I in a relationship with right now? Who should I be connecting with? Is it myself? The person seated opposite me? Or is it my phone?