There’s a frightening irony about our modern lives: as we become increasingly interconnected with others, we risk succumbing to loneliness. This is tragic, because we have more tools at our disposal, not less. That’s the problem, though: we can use good tools at the wrong time and forfeit opportunities for meaningful connections. Our evolving technology should be increasing our ability to maintain connections with more people, unrestricted by distance. And it can do that. But our celebration of these new opportunities rings hollow if the quality of our interactions starts to diminish.
I want to keep the same guiding principle in view that I’ve attempted to hold so far in this series: when technology enables us to achieve more, without considerable drawbacks, we have no reason to resist. The challenge, though, is that we are not always cognizant of the drawbacks. Sometimes they aren’t glaring. It can simply be a lost chance to relish a moment undistracted. When these distractions creep into our relationships, we don’t always notice it right away—at least if we’re the ones distracted. In the meantime, our loved ones suffer. I think the stakes are high, which is why I want to devote this article to exploring ways we can continue to use our phones without paying the price of fragmented relationships.
Our time for personal reflection directly impacts our relationships.
I devoted my past two articles to looking at how we can manage our phones without taking away from time for solitude and spiritual rejuvenation. While I was looking at this from a personal level, I think it’s worth noting that this also has strong implications for our ability to build relationships with others. If we haven’t learned to communicate with God personally and intimately, away from life’s distractions, then we’ll have less to offer to others. In this way, failing to take time to work through our own lives is actually selfish. Sherry Turkle puts it well:
It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. You don’t need them to be anything other than who they are. This means you can listen to them and hear what they have to say. This makes the capacity for solitude essential to the development of empathy. And this is why solitude marks the beginning of conversation’s virtuous circle. If you are comfortable with yourself, you can put yourself in someone else’s place.Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation pg 61
When phones and relationships intersect, we have more to lose than gain.
It’s a truism to say that no communication beats face-to-face interaction. But let’s think about this for a bit. We should be jealous of the most meaningful connections and prioritize them accordingly. We know what doesn’t constitute these connections: digital communication. So if our phones ever start to eat away at our capacity for devoting energy to in-person relationships, we will suffer. If, while relishing our new capacities for digital communication, we lose depth in our relationships, we have lost more than we’ve gained—and by a large margin.
Now I’m not trying to promote a false choice. Thankfully, it’s entirely possible to utilize the strengths of digital communication—like keeping up with friends out of the area—without sacrificing what matters most in our closest relationships. But don’t breathe a sigh of relief—at least not yet. I’m worried that most of us are indeed at risk of losing at least a measure of intimacy in our relationships. Our phones exert a strong pull on us; healthy usage isn’t going to happen by default. That’s why it’s important to stop and think. We need to ask the right questions, though. There are merits to asking if we’re using our phones too much. It’s a hard thing to measure, though, and frames the issue in a negative light. The better question, I think, is if we’re fully valuing our in-person relationships—the kind of connections that can only happen when we’re not distracted by our phones.
The mere presence of a phone distracts us.
If our phones can detract from our relationships, how does this happen practically? We think of glaring examples, like a rowdy group of young people poring over their social media feeds together and never engaging in actual conversation. Perhaps this can happen close to home. But I’ll give you as my readers the benefit of the doubt: you already have a distaste for this kind of overt immaturity. Instead, we face our technological disruption on a more mundane, subtle level. Let’s say you’re in a group of friends having respectable conversation. Over the course of half an hour, you’ll pull your phone out five times—maybe to quickly respond to a text or check the weather. (If this has never happened to you, I congratulate you for a self-control that virtually no one else in society possesses.) It’s seemingly harmless, of course: most of the time you’re engaging with those around you and the interruptions are brief. But as long as you can pull out your phone if you get bored or there’s an awkward silence, the depth of connection suffers. Here’s Turkle again:
What phones do to in-person conversation is a problem. Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on the table (even a phone turned off) changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep conversations light, on topics of little controversy or consequence. And conversations with phones on the landscape block empathic connection. If two people are speaking and there is a phone on a nearby desk, each feels less connected to the other than when there is no phone present. Even a silent phone disconnects us.Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation pg 21
Think about it for a minute. Or try spending time with your friends without your phone. While Turkle’s idea might seem far-fetched at first glance, I think you’ll be surprised by how much it holds true. Our brains simply weren’t created for constant interruption. When you pull yourself away from the conversation—even just for a few seconds—to check your phone, you don’t instantly reacclimate. You’re subconsciously thinking about what you just saw on your phone—or what you could see if you’d pull it out again. Often what’s lost isn’t apparent; we continue dialogue and perhaps even avoid those awkward pauses. We might be losing empathy, though.
We’ve seen that not only do multitaskers have trouble deciding how to organize their time, but over time, they “forget” how to read human emotions. Students—for example, my students—think that texting during class does not interrupt their understanding of class conversation, but they are wrong. The myth of multitasking is just that: a myth.Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation pg 213
I don’t know about you, but for me this is a bit terrifying. Sadly, there have been far too many times where I have been guilty of thinking that I could be “efficient” by trying to catch up on some texts while still taking in what’s around me. But it’s the process of actually connecting—picking up on those human traits beyond mere verbal communication—that gets lost in the process.
The good news about our distractions.
If it’s troubling to think about what our phones are taking away from us, the good news is that charting a new path doesn’t require much sacrifice. There are advantages to technology we’re all loath to give up, like texting friends we rarely see, finding a quick recipe, watching a tutorial on fixing cars, easy shopping, finding a good restaurant for a date—you name it. But these conveniences aren’t what’s keeping us from meaningful relationships. It’s the ubiquity of our devices that creates the problem. When you’re distracted from a conversation by your phone, you’re unlikely to be engaging in something productive—or even something you really enjoy. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’re frustrated with yourself when you keep pulling your phone out.
So I propose a simple solution: spend large amounts of time without your phone. If you’re having dinner with a friend, why not leave your phone in the car? Or at home, make a point to keep phones away from the table so the whole family can be truly present. Especially when you’re spending quality time with others, it will actually be relieving to not need to think about everything that could be calling for your attention on your phone.
But what about emergencies?
This is inevitably going to come up. Sure, you might say, I think it would be nice to spend time away from my phone. But what if there was an emergency and someone needed to get a hold of me? I want to be careful here, since I know there are situations where you need to be ready at a moment’s notice to help a family or loved one who is seriously ill. For anyone in that situation, obviously your commitment to your family overrides the advantages of blocking out disruptions. I doubt most of my readers are currently in that kind of a crisis situation, though. Assuming you’re not in that kind of situation, you and your loved ones should simply communicate about what to expect. It’s a very recent phenomenon that we expect to be able to contact anyone we want to at any time. Sometimes this just adds stress; when someone doesn’t respond to repeated texts and calls, we assume the worst. We think they might have died in a car crash when in reality, well, the battery died. Is it really necessary to always be able to contact everyone immediately “just in case” something goes wrong?
I’m not going to try to answer that question. I think it’s a largely personal one. If you determine that you feel more comfortable always having your phone on you, why not set your phone on Do Not Disturb with an exception for phone calls from your family and closest friends? Then you can take your phone off silent and turn the ringer all the way up. That way if the emergency call comes through, you’ll for sure hear it—and who cares if it’s disruptive?—and you won’t need to check your phone every five minutes “just in case.”
And of course there is no one right way to do this. The point is simply that it doesn’t make sense to be perpetually distracted just because there’s the possibility of an emergency. Find something that works for you so you can avoid unnecessary distraction.
Cherish moments of undivided attention.
I’ve given a few ideas of practical ways to help cut down on our phones’ tendency to eat away at our attention. But I want you to go away from this article inspired to truly connect with your loved ones in a deeper way. That’s the whole reason we take action in the first place. When you take steps to remove distraction, I think you’ll find the joy that comes from deepened relationships far outweighs any inconvenience.