Is the smartphone damaging our relationships and careers?

Yesterday, Matt explored how smartphones wreck our mental health. Today, he looks at relationships and career prospects – could a digital detox help both?


Matt Bain

Our relationship with devices has fundamentally changed how we relate to and empathise with people. Now, we talk about meeting people online and IRL (In Real Life), as if they have equivalency in our new language of emojis, text speak and gifs.

Whilst we’re (arguably) better connected than ever, evidence shows that our ability to sustain meaningful real life relationships has actually declined. A 2010 University of Michigan study revealed a decline by up to 40 per cent in the level of empathy shown by young adults, particularly since the year 2000. Other studies have shown that while we may have thousands of online friends and followers, people have fewer close friends that they actually spend time with and confide in than they did twenty or thirty years ago.

Think about it; when was the last time you felt you were having a conversation with someone in which you had each other’s full, undivided attention? Nowadays at social gatherings, if there’s a lull in conversation or someone takes slightly longer to make their point, the sight of twitchy hands sliding into pockets to retrieve the electronic comfort blanket is familiar.

We spend hours upon hours of our day texting and social networking, but how many of those conversations, comments, emojis and fleeting online memes will we really remember? And at the end of our lives, surely the actual moments we spent with people, the shared looks, laughs, warmth, body language, chemistry, the invisible energy that sparks between people, will be all that mattered?

And if you think that your online relations are just a personal matter, think again. Your professional prospects could rise or fall on your ability to connect properly IRL. Employers increasingly bemoan the decline of ‘soft skills’ in young employees, many of whom have spent so much of their youth glued to devices that they haven’t learned how to communicate in real life.

I can’t help but notice that the art of respectful, equal debating has also nosedived, particularly in the last year as emotions ran high over divisive issues like Donald Trump and Brexit. My sister explored the wider ramifications of this in her blog about narrow-mindedness in November.

What really astonishes me is the extent to which young people can be all online talk and no trousers when you actually discuss important issues in the flesh. People are too preoccupied with composing that perfectly-phrased pithy reply to the controversial post-du-jour on Facebook to think about developing their real-life skills in debating, critiquing and listening.

Furthermore, young people are starting to let the online news flow take over their emotional responses, as seen in the arguably disproportionate and melodramatic response to the deaths of aging celebrities, for whom (the last time I checked) mortality has never made a promise of exceptionalism. This over-emoting would not be so bad if you did not feel like it was in tandem with serious under-emoting in real life. While influential artists can mean a lot to people, is it right to post a mournful tribute to a dead celebrity who you’ve never met but forget to check up on your friend whose relative has just died? Would it be okay to send an emoji-laden text to someone who had posted a gloomy Facebook status update, but never actually pick up the phone and speak to them?

We know what the answers should be. So how come we ALL know people who have never quite been there for us but seem to always be there online to weep and wail at the day’s events?

I think we’re less humane than we were ten years ago, simply because we live in more of a machine world. It’s almost as if we expect people today to be more like the infallible, algorithmically-controlled wonder-machines in our pocket. With a world of unlimited networking, information or simple mindless entertainment on demand at all times, smartphones have left us with the attention span of moths: less willing to listen to other people and to spend time in the present moment, in a way that people had no choice about ten years ago, when the Nokia 3310 and its 10-text capacity limit was a social-life enabler as opposed to an alternative to living in the real world.

The more absorbed and engaged we are by our phones, the more we can opt out of thinking, reflecting, intuiting, experiencing the world around us in the moment and taking decisions. The default is to mindlessly plug back into machine world – not to stop, look around and see if there is something happening that is worth observing. Even if we do see something extraordinary or beautiful, the phone is out immediately and we’re experiencing it via a screen – even if the picture or video is likely never to be looked at again.

My sister had the surreal experience, a few years ago, of admiring the Venus di Milo statue – arguably one of the world’s greatest artistic landmarks – and having a diminutive Japanese lady hit her on the shoulder and motion her to move out of the way so a bazillion other Japanese tourists could stand and take photos. No matter that an exquisitely taken picture, with nobody around and just the right angle, lens and light, shot by a professional photographer could be bought in the gift shop for tuppence or even accessed online for free. This lady thought her third rate picture was worth more than my sister’s own real artistic experience, to which she was fully entitled. And I bet she looked at the picture once when she got home (if that).

So one of my resolutions is to try and use my phone less in 2017. The process of detachment is rather helped by the fact that my phone lets me down quite frequently, such as when there’s no signal or when it runs our of battery after 45 minutes. But I’ll readily admit that our universal default mode now revolves around the smartphone. We check it when we can’t think of what else to do. It’s easier to Whatsapp a friend than meet them, easier to proselytise online than listen and debate in the flesh, easier to write emojis than express how we really feel. By definition, the default is so much easier than actively engaging with reality. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t  harmful.

And, like any pattern of harmful behaviour, it is both scary and liberating when we break free of it. For instance, have you ever left the house without your smartphone – and were unexpectedly relieved to have a break from it?

If not, surprise yourself. It may be a lot nicer than you think.

If you haven’t already, check out the first instalment of Matt’s thought-provoking blog on our modern smartphone addiction


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