Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reaching for our devices as a security blanket

Photo retrieved from Valerie Harris' WordPress
Picture this: You're at a casual bar with a few of your friends. You're all sipping on your beers and mixed drinks and the conversation shifts between schoolwork and finals to work problems and then to boyfriend issues. The music is playing in the background; an occasional glass drops on the floor and shatters. That annoying girl is screeching because the DJ is finally playing "her song". Sounds like a typical weekend night on a college campus, right? Totally accurate.

But continue the scene in your head. How many of your friends have their smartphones on the table in front of them, next to their beer or mixed drink? How many of them have their phones in their hands, texting or catching up on Twitter? It's pretty likely that they are.

An article from Psychology Today called "Cell Phones are Changing Social Interaction" by Ira Hyman says that "Young adults also use text messaging as their primary method of contacting friends – over 80 percent report texting as their preferred method." As a young adult, I can totally attest to that statistic--I avoid calling people like the plague. We use texting because it's convenient and causes less of a disturbance. The same article says that young adults use their phones in all kinds of situations, "We asked about a lot of contexts – having dinner with friends, in line at the store, in church, intimate situations, at the gym, having coffee with a friend". 

Sometimes when I go out with my friends, we play a game called "phone stack". The rules of the game are as follows: Everyone puts their phones in a pile in the middle of the table, and the first person to touch his or her device is obligated to buy the table the next round of drinks. What does this mean for us as a society? Are we totally wrapped up in our technological lives that we miss out on what's happening in real-time, right in front of us? This game always proves to be extremely difficult for at least a couple people in the group.

Personally, I'm not a huge phone user when I'm out with friends, especially at the bars (which I'm so grateful for, and so are my Twitter & Snapchat accounts!). However, I do find myself drawn to take my Samsung Galaxy SIII in situations when I'm alone. It's a strange feeling to describe, but I cannot be alone in these feelings. I'll paint you a few little pictures of examples when this feeling overtakes me...
  • I'm sitting alone eating lunch in the Union. Gotta take my phone out.
  • I'm meeting a friend for coffee at Starbucks but she's running late, per usual. Can't imagine sitting alone so I whip out my phone and read up on the latest tweets.
  • I walked too quickly to class and my professor hasn't shown up yet, so I'm waiting outside in the hallway. Better check my Instagram so people walking by don't think I'm a friendless loser.
Are you seeing a pattern? When we feel alone we turn to our devices to ease our anxiety about feeling alone. Sherry Turkle does a wonderful job of explaining this phenomena in her TED Talk, "Connected but Alone?". She says, "Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device." She talks about how we view being alone as a problem--if you're alone than you're weird. An article called "7 Telltale Signs Social Media is Killing Your Self-Esteem" from Salon by Jodie Gummow lists this uncomfortable feeling as reason number two. She says "social media is a very lazy way to be in relationship with somebody and impacts on the inability to be alone.". 

Photo from Spain (that's me on the right!)
These women have a point. We're growing up in a generation in which we rely so heavily on technology that we can't even sit alone and feel disconnected for a moment. Even when we're with friends and there's a brief lull in conversation, we lack the skills to pick it back up. Instead we reach for our phones to console us. Although it seems almost impossible to fix this problem, I know from personal experience that it is indeed possible to hang out with your friends without your smartphone and not explode from sheer anxiety of what you might be missing out on social media. My sophomore year of college I studied abroad in Spain for a semester; I spent the whole five months without my precious (at the time) BlackBerry. Yet somehow I managed to have a blast -and-a-half. I made some of the best memories in Spain and you know what the best part is? I wasn't distracted for even a minute my by damn cell phone.

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