Phony Friends: The Darker Side of Smartphones

About halfway through lunch with my cousin, burger in one hand, phone in the other, he started swiping through Tinder. He continued to swipe as I restarted the conversation, absent-mindedly nodding his head in agreement with just about everything I said. At the time, I was offended that my cousin prioritized his phone over conversation with me. I felt like I was being forced to compete with my cousin's phone for his attention, and I knew that his phone had infinitely more to offer than I ever could. In retrospect, that interaction was not all that remarkable. Smartphones have become a third party to all of our social interactions. We are always at risk of interruption by a text, a Tweet, or a Tinder match.

There is nothing becoming nearly as ubiquitous in modern day life as the smartphone. Two-thirds of all mobile subscribes in the United States now own smartphones, and the global smartphone market is fast approaching two billion users. Smartphones have rapidly become a cultural obsession. The YouTube video showing a defect in the new iPhone 6, allowing you to bend the phone with your hands, now stands at 55 million views, the amount of views you would expect to see for a music video.

Most evaluations of smartphones have emphasized the positives: connectivity, easy and immediate information, access to an infinite set tools or Apps. Amidst the explosive growth of the smartphone culture, little attention has been paid to the potential drawbacks of these devices. There is next to nothing in our society that encourages us to be cautious of how much we use our devices. We know the dangers of watching too much TV or spending too much time on the computer. We have not made the same cost-benefit analysis when it comes to our phones. Since a single interaction with a smartphone is relatively short, we see little wrong with near constant usage. But, these interactions add up. Americans now spend 34 hours per month on smartphones, as opposed to 26 hours spent on the Internet.

What differentiates a smartphone from other integrated technologies in our lives? For one, the simple mobility and accessibility of a smartphone give it immense social power and influence. It is socially acceptable to use them essentially anywhere and under almost all circumstances. No one would think to flip out their laptop or even an iPad mid-conversation, but we have no problem quickly glancing at our phones.

Part of the problem is related to our physiology. Research shows that texts, tweets, and notifications trigger our dopamine system. The constant stream of information we get from our phones causes a "dopamine loop" launching us on an endless search for one more satisfying text or tweet. While we devote more and more time on our phones interacting virtually, we spend less time physically interacting with one another. We neglect other important physiological components of socialization. Researchers have shown, for example, the importance of touch in the formation of strong personal relationships. By crowding out face-to-face contact, smartphones have made our interpersonal relations more superficial in a real and measurable way.

Even when we do interact in person, smartphones disrupt the process of social bonding by blurring the line between face-to-face socialization and screen time. How we socialize through our phones conflicts with how we have evolved to interact with one another. Psychologists have pointed out that texting and email allows us to easily edit and retouch our presentation of ourselves to one another. Conversation, on the other hand, is difficult to control. Yet, there is an important learning process in personal interaction as we see the immediate impacts of our words and our actions. We are not born with social awareness. We gain it through a long process of trial and error that spans our entire lives.

The other part of the problem represents more of a conscious choice to continuously rely on our devices. We rationalize a special relationship with our phones because modern life demands that we remain constantly connected. In a recent PEW survey, 39 percent of respondents said they received complaints that they don't respond promptly to phone/text messages while only 12percent received complaints that they check their phone too much. The physiological effect of our connectivity is thus strongly backed by social norms pressuring us to remain connected. Phone use is backed by a system of conscious and unconscious incentives. There are no similar incentives pushing us to put our phones away.

The problems with our smartphone use reminds us of the extent to which humans are willing to adopt new technology, but are, at the same time, unable to adapt to those same technologies. In the gap between the incessant expansion of smartphones and our inability to take stock of what constant connectivity means, we are loosing what it means to be to be truly connected to one another.

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