Put down your phone – unless you’re using it to read this article. I’ve got a question for you. Is mobile technology bringing us closer together or further apart? From where I’m sitting, so-called smart phones may be dumbing down American society.
According to a recent cross-platform report from Nielsen, the average adult spends nearly 12 hours a day with electronic media. To be fair, the study includes a broad spectrum of technological interfacing that extends beyond simple cell phone usage. But even by conservative estimates, the average American spends over 5 hours a day online via a mobile device. That’s a lot by any standard.
Have you ever tried to put a number on how much time you spend on your phone in a single day? It varies for everyone, but few can deny that our attachment to smart phones borders on chemical dependency. There are obvious advantages to having a world of information and constant connectivity at our fingertips. At the same time, I’m starting to think that a cabin in the woods with a landline and pen pals sounds like Heaven.
We’ve all had near misses with vehicular texters. We’ve looked on as couples ignore each other at dinner and parents pacify disruptive children with mobile devices. And who hasn’t experienced a ringing phone interrupting a meeting or a movie? As a consequence of prioritizing convenience in communications, we are developing a deficiency in our personal interactions. My concern is that we are devolving into a society subconsciously devoted to the digital medium, and there will be a cost.
While electronic interactions may be comfortable to use, they can be difficult to interpret after a long evolutionary heritage of hands-on social skills. Humans have spent thousands of years learning to interpret body language, non-verbal cues and phonetic language. Written language is relatively new to us, often making emails and texts come across as infantile, abrupt or even insulting. Indeed, technology has evolved faster than our ability to properly use or understand the social consequences of that use.
There are physical consequences of mobile tech dependency as well. Each day in the United States, more than 9 people are killed and more than 1,153 people are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, says the CDC Injury Center.
Even reading the phone while sitting on the couch can be a pain in the neck. Citing a study published in the journal Surgical Technology International, Dr. Ken Hansraj, a spinal and orthopedic surgeon in Poughkeepsie, New York, explains the impacts to the spine of “texting neck.” A head weighs 10-12 pounds in a neutral position, but by tilting it forward, the forces it exerts on the neck can surge up to 60 pounds when the head is tilted by 60 degrees. That may lead to “early wear, tear, degeneration, and possibly surgeries,” the study found.
It’s time to stop, look up and ask ourselves why we are so dependent on mobile technology. For my part, I’m actively resisting the urge to check email, Facebook and text messages during every spare minute. Paradigms don’t change over night, but I’d love it if you would join me in this. Challenge yourself to a new social interaction every day, even if it’s just to put down your phone long enough to say hello to your cashier at the coffee shop. In this day and age, just looking a person in the eye to say “hi” could make their day.
The Internet is a powerful force with the capacity to advance interpersonal communication. At the same time, it can also compromise our ability to truly connect with each other. Either we are on the brink of an evolutionary leap in communication or in danger of normalizing a horrible habit. The deciding factor will be whether we can develop the discipline to learn when to put the phone down and pay attention to the beauty that surrounds us.
Cabin image via belief.net