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How smartphones impact our social wellness

social media icons and a smart phone

While smartphones can negatively impact social wellness, striking a balance between usage and in-person conversations is best

Smartphones and the use of social media promised convenience and ease in connecting with others. Interestingly, it may actually be doing the opposite, whereby more meaningful and spontaneous conversations are being traded for surface level conversing. Author and MIT professor, Sherry Turkle’s research in examining the social effects of cell phone use is presented in her book, Reclaiming Conversation, the Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle recognizes technology can serve a productive role in our lives, but seeks to shine a light on the dark side where smartphones can distract us during face-to-face conversations, inhibiting the quality of conversation. Through face-to-face conversation Turkle suggests in an interview with Greater Good Science Center – UC Berkeley that empathy and connection can be realized due to eye contact, awareness of body movements and tonal changes within an individual’s voice. Furthermore, when face-to-face conversations are compromised due to smartphones, it is more challenging to learn about others.

Disconnection on campus

In the context of a university campus, Turkle’s perspective is significant when considering the potential losses of connecting with others face-to-face given the rich opportunities of diverse populations and experiences present on a campus. Turkle is not alone in her research findings. Dwyer, Kushlev, & Dunn’s 2018 journal article, Smartphone Use Undermines Enjoyment of Face-to-Face Social Interactions, found individuals experienced more distraction and lower levels of enjoyment when smartphones were present during face-to-face conversation. A recent article interviewing Professor Aimee Miller-Ott of the School of Communication at Illinois State University also discusses the threat of losing face-to-face interpersonal skills when texting is used as a primary source of communicating with others.

The Art of Conversation

It is reasonable to question if smartphones are making us less smart when it comes to the art of conversation. Turkle suggests individuals can turn to their phones when there are lulls in conversation. Living in a culture where constant media streams of stimulation are all around us, lulls can seem foreign and uncomfortable. However, lulls may allow us the space to observe, think, reflect, and then return to conversation with intention and presence, resulting in more enriching connections.

The Conversation Revival

Phones often appear to serve as security blankets and can be difficult to part with as an old, tattered childhood blanket, even if for a few minutes or an hour. However, consider this, Hall and Davis’ Communication, Belong, Bond (CBB) theory notes as humans we have an innate drive to belong. One could add, within belonging we can feel understood, providing comfort and security. Connecting with others through intentional face-to-face conversation offers us the belonging and understanding we may seek through our phones, but in a more meaningful way. In fact, Hall and Davis suggest using social media for communicating may serve as a “social snacking” vehicle, but likely does not serve to satiate our need to belong.

We do not have to stop using our phones, but rather be more selective in how we use them. Reviving face-to-face conversations just might help us realize what we have been missing out on.

Tips for Conversation Revival

  • Build awareness around your phone use and how it may be impacting your communication behaviors with others.
  • Put your phone away where it is not visible when engaging with others, letting them know you are completely present for them.
  • Don’t judge a conversation by its lulls, there might be insight within those moments.
  • When around people you are unfamiliar with, strike up a conversation instead of turning to your phone. You might make a new friend or learn something new.
  • Be open to people talking with you face-to-face instead of hiding behind your phone. It’s hard to connect with others when you do not make yourself accessible.
  • Try experimenting by putting your phone away when walking between appointments or classes unless absolutely necessary to look at it. Take time to make eye contact with people, say hello, or talk with a friend or colleague.
  • Choose to have what might be uncomfortable conversations face-to-face, or at a minimum in a phone call, instead of texting through the phone. Uncomfortable conversations are a part of life, an opportunity to learn and grow from them. It also shows the other person they are of value and respected.
  • Challenge yourself to not immediately look at your phone when a message comes in. See how long you can go without looking at it. Establish a code or a specific way of reaching you for key people who may need to contact you in an emergency, as to not be concerned about missing emergency messages.
  • Let others know you are trying to minimize your use and encourage them to try it as well.
  • Challenge yourself to talk with others who are different than you during phone down time, capitalizing on the diverse campus we are on. You may just help someone feel like they belong and forge a new relationship you would have otherwise missed out on.

Taking time to converse face-to-face more often may initially seem uncomfortable. Try not to let the discomfort own you, instead recognize it for what it is and know that it won’t last forever. With conscious practice, connecting in person with others can become second nature, resulting in enriching and satisfying social connections.