Digital Life and its Consequences: #iLife #phoneworlds

I just presented on the topic of Managing our Digital Lives (#ilife #phoneworlds) for a group of graduate students at a University of California campus. The topic was how our digital lives affect our social and physical health. The group consisted of mostly Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students and I was tentative about whether they would be able to relate to the topic given that I am trained in social sciences and do not consider myself an industrious researcher. However, I was surprised by the personal stories and anecdotes shared by the students proving exactly how relevant this topic is regardless of discipline, age, or cultural background of an individual.

We discussed how much technology has benefited our lives in the past decades, particularly since, what I call, the iPhone era. I know, I know, there are other smartphones, and arguably, better ones (sorry, Steve). Although, the first prototype of a smartphone dates back to the 1980s, smartphone culture did not really infiltrate into mainstream society until post-2007, and global society just a year later.

If you’ve read previous posts on this blog, you know I have some thoughts about the costs and benefits of digital interconnectivity. In summary, our interconnectivity makes us more productive, mobile, and social (albeit via online applications); it makes us appear more knowledgeable (thank you Google, now a verb not just a search engine); and it makes managing our lives convenient (mobile banking, Airbnb, Uber, Whatsapp, Tinder etc). But the digital revolution is also rapidly changing how we relate to ourselves and others. Also, out biology is affected. Studies show that screen time is connected to disrupted sleep, negative impacts on our circadian rhythm, increased dopamine release resulting from phone-checking behaviors, and insular cortex activity producing feelings similar to falling in love. Be honest, when was the last time you slept without your phone lying next to you? Furthermore, the number of distracted pedestrian accidents from text messaging (think fender benders, biking while texting, walking while texting) which result in a visit to the ER is increasing, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). Serious accidents with fatal outcomes are also a reality. There are actual health consequences to our connection!

Aside from physical health, our social norms are also changing. Collectively we have all accepted that the people we are spending quality time with will probably, at some point, slide into their phoneworlds right in front of us. You have all seen families having dinner with one another, and their phones, and people on dates whipping out their phones. In his book Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari coined the term #phoneworlds and addressed its impacted on the dating culture in societies all over. Essentially many of us have accepted that we will be ignored or invisible for a period of time while our company is responding to a screen.

Phone stack

For some people, this is not some kind of affront or issue and there is acceptance of it. Others have learned to work around it. One student at my presentation shared that while out with friends, the group will converse and view something together on one person’s phone and discuss it.

This is a way of utilizing the phone to enhance social connection. Others, as illustrated by this NYT article, have decided to play “phone-stack”, where friends at dinner stack their phone in the center of the table and the first one to check their phone pays the bill. The game deters friend snubbing. But for some, this is an increasingly frustrating phenomenon. It really surprised me to hear that millennials at the presentation, the group most often criticized for self-absorbed, inconsiderate “me-ness”, were more annoyed by lack of smartphone etiquette than generations before them. For example, another student shared they have ended friendships due to their friends being distracted by their phones while spending actual face time (versus screen FaceTime) together. However, the impact on social relationships vary from person to person and everyone’s expectations and perceptions are different. One other student shared they would understand a sudden phone intrusion if someone was expecting an important call. All are valid reactions. 

Speaking as a recovering smartphone addict, I have been guilty of rude smartphone use so I am not preaching from on high. And I am not advocating for smartphone abstinence. There are professional realities to keep in mind. I manage some of my business needs using smartphone applications so I know that digital connectivity is a necessity in our times. That said, having experienced the effects of exercising unplug strategies, I know that being conscious of my use is important to both my physical and social health (for more on unplug, see Baratunde Thruston from Fast Company). When I lost my phone in Mexico City, I felt like I had just experienced a break-up with a romantic partner (refer back to insular cortex activation). After the initial devastation and sense of loss, I decided to go without a phone for the next three weeks. I noticed that I slept better, felt less anxious, was more able to take naps, and focus on being with the people right in front of me. I also noticed that I felt left out (was not able to easily communicate with others about events and activities); less independent (I had to write down directions before going anywhere); and I missed being connected (no easy access to text, emails, etc). Again, while I appreciate digital life, there are consequences to consider.

What I heard from the students is that there needs to be some discussion about smartphone etiquette, (phon-etiquette anyone?) as many users fail to realize how their connectivity, or lack thereof, is affecting their non-virtual lives. In my next post we will contemplate healthy digital connectivity and etiquette.

In conclusion, at the end of my presentation, a student suggested this YouTube video – Look Up. I’d like to share it with you. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with everything said in this video. But it is definitely thought-provoking. Enjoy!

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