Every morning and evening when I board the train, I’ve made a habit of looking around me and noting how many people are on some device - cell phone, tablet, laptop, kindle, anything at all. To no surprise, almost all passengers on the train are either looking at a screen or have headphones on that are connected to their device. It’s a bit strange to me that in a populated train car, not one conversation is had amongst strangers. I often think about the connections we miss out on in favor of a screen. Even as a sit writing this in a crowded train car now, I could be missing out on a connection with someone who would be a great friend, mentor, love interest, etc because my eyes are glued to my screen. This often makes me question what else we might be missing out on because we have unplugged from our lives.
In a 2014, Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel conducted a study among 3,042 cell phone users. The study found that 89% of cell phone users used their phone during the most recent social gathering they attended. Along with wanting to know how these individuals used their phones in a social setting, researchers also wanted to know what these individuals hoped to accomplish by their usage. It was found that many of these people engaged in cell phone usage for either “group-contributing” reasons - to post a picture or video they had taken of the gathering, to share something that had occurred in the group by text, email, or social networking site, to get information they thought would be interesting to the group, or to connect with other people who are known to the group - or “retreating-from-the-group” reasons - they are no longer interested in what the group was doing, to connect with other people who are strangers to the group, or to avoid participating in what the group was discussing. Despite these distinctions, I’d argue that all of the aforementioned reasons should all be categorized as “retreating-from-the-group” reasons, as they all keep people from meaningfully engaging with the individuals around them.
Another study conducted by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda asked 200 students at the University of Maryland, College Park to abstain from using all media for 24 hours. After this 24 hour period, the students were asked to write about their experiences. Many students reported that they used the time to spend quality time with loved ones, make a nice meal for themselves or their families, exercise, and generally had more face-to-face interactions. Additionally, students reported being better able to concentrate in class, and, without being able to listen to music on their phones, were able to be more attentive to their surroundings.
Not only does phubbing - snubbing others in favor of our phones - keep us from engaging with the people around us, it also leads to relational conflicts. I watch this happen to those around me and in my own relationships more often than I’d prefer were the case. Whether it’s with friends on the train, a couple at dinner, parents with their young children, or an employee at a meeting, it’s highly likely that the person being phubbed will feel unheard, disregarded, and disrespected and possibly turn to their own device, thus perpetuating the problem. When we are connected to our phones, we are unable to be attentive to those around us; We miss out on facial cues, body posture, changes in tone of voice, and often the actual content of what the other person wants us to hear.
What can you do to plug back into your life?
1. Change your morning routine. According to the 2016 Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, 89% of consumers checked their phones within their first waking hour. Within the first hour of being awake, we are instantly flooded with updates from our friends’ social media, emails about work, perhaps we’ve missed a phone call or two. Tristan Harris, an ex-Google Design Ethicist, stated “When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications — it frames the experience of ‘waking up in the morning’ around a menu of ‘all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.’” Instead of checking your phone the moment you wake up, perhaps you can use that time to connect with yourself through meditation, exercise, or reflection.
2. Put your phone down for an extended period of time every day. Only you know what period of the day works best for you so the specific period of time isn’t as important as your commitment to putting your phone down during the chosen time. Imagine what you can get done during an hour without your phone. Don’t worry, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc will still be up and running if and when you decide to return to them.
3. Have other options. So many of us turn to our phones to cure our boredom, but are there alternatives to this action? Instead of scrolling through your news feeds or refreshing your emails, maybe you could read a book, ask your partner to take a walk outside with you, or play a technology-free game with your family. There are ways to cure boredom that don’t necessitate being on a device.
Unplugging from technology is definitely difficult, especially given that so many of us rely on our phones for a variety of things from our alarm clock to news updates to pure entertainment. However, the more you are plugged into your devices, the less you are plugged into your life, and the more you miss out on opportunities for real connection.