Tag Archives: intrapersonal communication

Phone Culture is Making Us Stupid

The solitary self is becoming an unfamiliar place we would rather not visit.

We can all celebrate the expansion of information made possible by the internet.  But there is a price to be paid for total connectivity, especially the portion of it that drops into the black hole of phone culture. The ability to call or receive messages from people we know or public figures we ‘follow’ takes a heavy toll on the energies of addicted users.  It’s becoming a familiar complaint.

Notice what people are doing when they are caught in a pause between activities: maybe waiting for a train, a friend, or the start of a meeting.  They are usually in the thrall of their devices. Any pause in the day must be filled with the search for an incoming distraction. The solitary self is mostly an unwelcome place we would rather not visit. True, a person could be reading a provocative book on their device. But it is far more likely they are cleansing their phone of throwaway messages: thumbing through the detritus of a culture increasingly caught in a web of inconsequential moments.

If the need for personal mobility arises, the protocols of this addiction usually require a device clutched in the right hand, ready to receive an incoming “message.” The left hand is the withering appendage still used to carry whatever else must also come along.

There can be no doubt that a portable phone has all kinds of useful functions for journalists, travelers, business people, and many of the rest of us. But it has become an easy reason to postpone more demanding tasks.  We are too ready to divert our attention to screens of minor delights.  Even counselors and psychotherapists are now advised to tolerate mid-session phone-checking from their younger clients, who now average well over 100 hits a day (Psychotherapy Networker, November, 2018).

Consider a brief sampling of what this overuse is costing us.

–Intrapersonal thought is impaired.  We are not the people we should  be if we don’t consider our actions and decisions.  The work of a fully functioning human includes examining the events and moments in our lives.  Plato’s reminder that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is self-evident. We need time to hear ourselves in order to set our own compass for the days and weeks ahead. While many are proud to cite their devotion to yoga or meditation, the concentration and sustained awareness they can produce used to be a common experience for previous generations. The natural rhythms of the pre-digital world gave individuals a natural window to their consciousness.

A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action.

–Time is lost on tasks that could be more innovative, creative and educational.  We seem to turning into the kinds corpulent and devoted spectators that populated Pixar’s prescient WALL-E (2009).  A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action. Since creativity and innovation require sustained attention to a single task, we must nurture the capacity for such linear thinking. How many symphonies would Joseph Haydn have written if his pocket held an iPhone 8?  He wrote over a hundred in his lifetime,  but I doubt he would have made it even to the Farewell Symphony, Number 45.

–Personal identity that needs to form and evolve is put under siege.  We can easily succumb to the seemingly happier but mostly inflated self-presentations offered by others.  Evidence from recent studies suggests that many adolescents tend to fall into lower levels of self-esteem if they are heavy users of social media. (Journal of Adolescence, August 2016, 41-49). This is probably because online communities like Instagram tend to norm what’s “cool” and what’s not. The resultant checking of self against others drains away the natural impulse to shape one’s identity to passions found in the inner self.

–Real-time contact with others is decreased.  For many of us, rates of daily “screen time” have crept into the eight hour range.  Phones make up about half of that time. Researchers have also documented a disturbing recent trend indicating that middle and high school students are avoiding actual interaction with strangers or adults.  For them, face-time with all but a best friend is stressful.  More perversely, as recently noted, a phone has become its own excuse to not see or connect with another.

The new year is a good time to reconsider what matters. Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are on the verge of becoming immune to the advantages of figuring out what we actually think.

Digital Doping

Our minds have important things to tell us. But they need time alone with the person they are attached to.

Try a simple exercise for a few days. Make a point of noticing what others are doing when they have some moments alone.  Perhaps a person is waiting for an elevator, standing on a street corner looking for their ride, sitting in a classroom waiting for a session to begin, or standing on a magnificent beach at the “golden hour” just before sunset.  The question can always be the same:  are these folks in a temporary lull looking for a way out of the moment?  Do they need the distraction of a digital fix?

The answer is often yes. We exist to be busy, or at least to do something that passes for it. Showing that we have something to do seems to validate our sense of importance.  But there is truth in the idea that we would be better off if we were doing less and thinking more.

We almost always seek an exit from any opportunity to be in our own heads.

There may be a little bit of confirmation bias working here, but I’m struck with how even a moment of solitude needs to be broken by attention to unknown and usually unimportant messages on a phone. The sunset and our own internal thoughts will have to wait.  We usually seek any exit from any opportunity to be in our own heads. We’d rather be “checking:” the label now attached to a state of near constant digital distraction.

That’s unfortunate, because our inner selves probably have some useful things to tell us.  The linear thinking that makes creativity possible requires sustained attention. The ordering of pressing priorities needs concerted mental effort. Seemingly “doing nothing” as we gaze into the distance without the sedative of digital doping can actually be productive.  We certainly understand this with regard to children.  Being on a task for a long period is not what they need.  In fact, like the rest of us, they must have generous amounts of time to be in the moment: time to daydream and, as they grow up, time to make decisions about what matters and what comes next. These are the rudiments of consciousness.  And because much of our interior thinking is language based, it takes time to “listen” to ideas and emerging formulations that we should want to know better.

In addition, there is always an outside world worth a closer look.  A typical moment may not quite live up to a sunset over the ocean.  More prosaically, it may be the wind making tall trees dance, the beauty of a sudden stillness, or it may be the sight of a child utterly alive in a moment of play.

Face it: most of us are stuck with the same unproductive behavior repeated with a frequency that would make an obsessive blush. Phone checking is now a recognized addictive behavior.  Some folks can’t go more than a few minutes before checking it for messages. Some sleep with their devices.  Most use phones as alternate sources of stimulation in meetings and classes, and even during meals with friends and family.  It’s become a kind of faux-consciousness that is, frankly, intellectually impoverished.  We use our devices to avoid listening to what can be useful chatter from inside. The only ways some of us get back in touch with ourselves is sometimes to make a show of it, such as sitting on a yoga mat where studio rules require that digital devices stay outside.

You might be surprised at the novel and productive ideas your inner self is ready to share.

Socrates gave us the overused by valuable reminder that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  He meant something quite cosmic by it.  But we can scale it down to be a simple prescription for the few precious minutes we can capture here and there to maintain a sense of centeredness. We might be surprised at the ideas our inner selves are ready to share.