Look everywhere. Everyone has their faces buried in their phones, or tablets, or Kindles, or what have you. Why wouldn’t this be the case? After all, we have beaming screens of pure information available to us 24 hours a day. Just ten years ago, it wasn’t nearly like this, and smartphones were still in their early stages. A lot of the functionality that we take for granted today was just an idea in someone’s head.
Our phones have changed every part of our lives. Most obviously, we are always able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. This has enormous benefits, and has led to our phones doing everything from containing our books, to allowing us to hail a cab, to trading stocks, to posting pictures of our lunch for our friends to see. Such a large amount of the daily activities you do are tied to your phone in one way or another, so it’s natural for it to become an extension of yourself as you go about your life.
However, with all great things come great downsides. As time goes on, and mobile phone use reaches a critical mass, there’s the very clear and present issue of screen addiction. Now, of course, texting while walking or something like that is never a good thing, but I’m referring to the psychologically-conditioned need to constantly check one’s phone and be on one’s phone, even when the time is not appropriate or even when you’ve checked it seconds ago. This has gotten to the point where many cannot even sit still by themselves (say, when you’re waiting at a bar for friends or waiting for your bus to arrive) without being glued to your phone.
It’s akin to being a cigarette smoker. Your hands are instinctively reaching for your phone without you even realizing it. You’ve probably already checked it since you’ve began reading. It’s almost less of a need to see new information than it is to use the phone as a fidget of sorts.
Social media and its issues
Social media has been under fire for so many reasons. It’s clear that looking at it too much is not good for you — as the old saying goes, you’re looking at a highlight reel of other people’s lives. All criticism aside, it does provide an unprecedented ability for likeminded people to connect, for better and for worse.
To fully write off social media as a “bad thing” is to ignore the undeniable benefits that free exchange (usually) brings about. Grassroots movements can begin and ideas can be spread without having to go through the old gatekeepers of media.
However, just having an excess of access to social media every waking moment is not a good thing. It is a major part of what seems to drive screen addiction — the small kick of dopamine that you get when you get a notification, see your likes counter increase, see new comments, and so on. Everyone wants to be popular, and when you actually have some kind of quantifiable proof that you’re “worthwhile” then the brain feels good.
Isolation in a connected world
And yet, despite the immediate ability to connect with anyone in the world, I think that this actually brings forward the counterintuitive phenomenon of isolation as a result. Firstly, the quality of interactions is far diminished in many cases. Face-to-face, or even on the phone, is superior to today’s web of likes, direct messages, tagging someone, and so on. You think that you’re communicating in some kind of quality way, but at the same time you aren’t.
Enough interactions like this and you start losing touch with the value of more “real” interactions. All of that serves to, counterintuitively, bring a sense of isolation.
It’s similar to the cliche of living in a big city of millions and feeling alone. Sure, you interact with so many people every day. But if “quality over quantity” ever meant anything, it means a lot here.
As we trend to being ever-more reliant on our devices, it remains to be seen what kind of long term societal and mental health effects there will be. Software-based solutions are available or are being implemented, which limit the amount of time you spend using certain apps. That’s a step in right right direction for self-control, but it is the app makers and operating system manufacturers that are doing this, and it is in their best interest that you spend more time interacting with their products.
There are also certain concepts gaining in popularity that make it clear that your devices should not be prioritized over proper interaction. Think of how it’s considered rude to be on your phone on a date, or the game played at restaurants where everyone’s phone is face down and the first person to grab it pays the entire bill. It’s clear that many realize that screen addiction isn’t good, but it’ll take a larger, more concerted cultural change that emphasizes personal interactions to be able to mitigate the phenomenon that we’re seeing here.