Rethinking Technology Use

I’ll admit it—sometimes I act like a mom. For example, if I could have one superpower, I would wish for the ability to talk through glass so I could shame my fellow Millennials when I see them texting and driving. Maybe a “GET OFF YOUR PHONE” bumper sticker will have to do. That’s not the only time that phones bother me—at the dinner table, during World Cup halftime, anywhere there’s human interaction—my sensitivity to smartphone use is very high. But phones aren’t all bad, are they? As I learn more about the reasons people gravitate towards their phones, I’m realizing that there’s more to the story than my inner-mom would have me believe.

Alexander Graham Bell dreaming of Twitter

Alexander Graham Bell dreaming of Twitter

Most of our phone-time is spent interacting with other people on social media. I’ve never met someone who roots more for social media than Gary Vaynerchuk. In fact, he calls ‘social media’ is a misnomer. We are social creatures by nature, so calling long-distance friendships ‘social media’ is like calling dinner parties ‘nutritional and social satisfaction events’. It’s just not the same. Not only this, but social media shrinks the planet—connects us in ways Alexander Graham Bell could only dream of. Now when I see my friends on their phones, I remind myself that it’s very likely they’re filling a need they’re wired to enjoy: social interaction. When I realize this, my inner-mom softens a little bit.

But the comparison isn’t entirely apples-to-apples. For example, we can’t fast-forward through the boring parts of in-person conversations. We can’t scroll straight to grandpa’s punch line or click on cousins’ most entertaining stories. In this way, we expect more from our digital social world than the real one, and it’s the subject of Sherri Turkle’s book (and talk) “Alone Together.” While our phones might satisfy our social needs, they change our relationship with in-person conversations. Grandma’s story about growing up in Texarkana pales in comparison to Rob Delaney’s Twitter feed.

Not only does technology change increase our expectations of human interaction, but it also threatens to dehumanize how we connect with one another. On social media we filter out everything that makes us vulnerable, uncomfortable, and, well, human. I believe that we don’t truly connect with one another until we share our struggles—the stories of hardship, sadness, fear, shame, or uncertainty—that get left out from our news feeds. Even if we did post about them, how could we help each other unless we’re in person? Do 100 likes on a disheartening post add up to a hug? I can’t say they do.

At this point my inner-mom is a little overwhelmed. “Even when we put our phones down, the problems don’t end there, so how can we become more responsible users of technology?” she wonders. There is an art to preventing problems created by phone-overuse, so here are a few actions for you to experiment with.

  1. Become aware of your habits by asking yourself the following: How am I using social media and technology? Is it simply entertainment or is it serving as a distraction from some deeper problem? Am I going into my phone to avoid the discomfort of my current situation? Am I sharing out of a fear of being alone?
  2. Fight for more humane interactions: Share a struggle or discomfort with a loved one at least once a week. Plug into a community of people you share interests with (book club, gun club, sports league, church, volunteer activity). Share this conversation with others.
  3.  Add structures to your day that prevent technology overuse: Schedule set-times during the day where you allow yourself to check social media. Charge your phone in a room separate from where you sleep. Turn off notifications from apps that no longer serve you.
  4. If all else fails, liberate yourself by trading in your smart-phone for a dumb-phone!

What do you all think? Where is our current relationship with technology taking us? What is it costing us?