I was in New York City this past weekend exploring the sights; my mom and aunt really wanted to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree and I like to use any excuse I can to travel and explore for a weekend, so I joined them on the trip. After immersing ourselves in the beauty of the Christmas tree during our first night there (although I must admit I was more excited by the NBC studios that were close by), we ate some street food and then started to head back to our hotel.
Being the tourists we were, we had no idea where the nearest subway line was. Without even thinking about it, I took out my iPhone and started searching for it via a map/GPS application. I was having some difficulties locating it (NYC is so ridiculously big it takes some time to orient yourself) so the three of us were just standing there in the cold as hundreds of people were walking by and trying not to bump into us. We started to talk about which direction we should walk in order to find a subway station and then I turned around.
Literally some thirty feet behind us was a sign with stairs leading down into a subway station. It was at that moment I realized I probably should have checked out my physical surroundings first before resorting to the cell phone.
As I was getting on the bus this morning (to come to this coffee shop where I am now writing this blog) I noticed I had left the aforementioned phone in my car at the bus stop parking lot. As anyone who spends too much time on their phones out there can attest to, an instant sense of anxiety and emptiness swept through my body. How in the world am I going to make it through this whole day without my phone? Can I survive the bus ride and walk through the city without listening to my music? Will I know what is going on in the world without being able to constantly check my Twitter and Facebook feeds? What if someone needs to call me and it’s an emergency and I don’t have my phone? As the bus door closed and we left the station I remembered my topic for today was going to be about cell phones and I finally understood—this was somehow meant to be. No better day to discuss our overuse of cell phones than a day when I have to face my own dependency head on!
A Plethora of Phones
Yesterday the National Communication Association (via Twitter) posted a link to this article, written by Dr. Elizabeth Tolman of South Dakota State University. Dr. Tolman discusses the increase in cell phone use in our society and the negative effects it is having on communication practices. She bases her assertions on previous research findings in the communication discipline and uses examples from papers written by her students.
Tolman (2011) first shares some statistics from Nielsen and Common Sense Media. The statistics state there are over 223 million cell phone users over the age of 13 in the United States and that children as young as 0-2 years are now using mobile media. Cell phones have literally infiltrated every aspect of society (workplace, home, school, etc.). You might be reading this on a cell phone right now.
I will not summarize all of Tolman’s main points, but some of them definitely stand out and relate to my life. Among other things, she says over dependence on cell phones affects our interpersonal relationships and how we behave in public spaces.
Focusing on our cell phones while engaging in a face-to-face conversation is simply not possible; we must choose one or the other. Tolman explains this nicely:
Consider if you are becoming a non-participant in a group conversation. For example, this summer while visiting my parent’s cabin, my brother was using his smart phone when we were out on the lake in a boat. In this instance I observed that he was physically present, but not actively participating in the conversation. This example illustrates how an individual can become a passive member of a conversation and become excluded from the group interaction.
I have committed the above crime more times than I can remember. For instance, I might be having a good conversation with a friend at a restaurant with my phone sitting on the table in vibrate mode. The phone will then move slightly, notifying me I have received a message. No matter how good the conversation with my friend is, I usually feel an urge, a need, and a necessity to pick up the silly phone and check the message. I sometimes even respond to the message, while attempting to make eye contact with the friend and acting as if I am still actively listening (which of course I am not).
You know you’ve done it too.
One of the reasons behaviors such as these are increasingly seen as less taboo in our society is because the majority of the population does it. In the above scenario my friend would most likely not have been offended. In fact, they might pause the conversation and check their cell phone as well. These actions are very ironic—we give up face-to-face communication with our friends in order to engage in computer-mediated-communication with our other friends. Thus, we are giving up communication to communicate; we are essentially saying, “I can’t talk, I’m texting!”
When discussing cell phone use in public spaces, Tolman (2011) asks,
Have you ever observed two people sitting across from each other at a restaurant, not talking, yet looking down at their cell phones? Are there instances when individuals use their cell phones to “look busy” or fidget with their cell phones in order to avoid potentially awkward interactions or silences, such as when getting a hair cut? Cell phone users should consider their motivation for using a mobile device in a public setting.
Again, she alludes to something I have done before and that most of you probably have done as well. When you are in situation with a stranger (an elevator, for example) and you are forced to spend some time with them, chances are that you will take out your phone and look at it like you just received the most important message of your life. You do this just to avoid the possibility of interacting with or (heavens forbid!) making eye contact with a stranger. Cell phones have become such a big part of our everyday rituals that we now use them as shields when we do not want to interact with others. For instance, I will oftentimes put my headphones in and act like I am listening to music from my phone when I am in fact not listening to anything. I do this because having those headphones in guarantees people won’t bother me.
So Do I Fear Technology?
The Luddites were made up of people in 19th century England who were against the Industrial Revolution because they feared the increase in technology and machinery would decrease jobs and negatively affect their lives. During their protests they actually destroyed machinery.
These days the word “Luddite” is used to describe those who are opposed to and afraid of new technology. I want to make clear that I am not a Luddite. I am not opposed to the growth of cell phones in our society and I recognize the amazing positive impacts they have had on improving communication. I have even written about the great benefits of mobile devices in the context of traveling. I like my cell phone and love that these devices increase our ability to communicate.
However, I think it is imperative that we also recognize the potential negative effects of too much cell phone use. Too much of anything is a bad thing, and technology is no exception.
While the phone could have helped me to get around New York City (and did several times), there are situations in which I did not have to depend on the phone and in which the phone actually hurt me by distracting me from my immediate surroundings. While phones can help us to communicate with our loved ones throughout the day, they can also hurt our relationships by causing us to not pay attention to those people who are actually in our presence at the moment. And while cell phones can be used strategically to avoid interactions with others, they can also prohibit potential amazing conversations with strangers. Some of my most memorable conversations have been with people who were complete strangers. Since strangers don’t know each other they tend to open up more and learn a lot about each other’s lives in a short period of time. Conversations like these would not happen if everybody avoided them by “fake” listening to music from their cell phones.
As media convergence continues to increase in the Unites States and more technology enters our pockets and daily lives and as technology continues to increase around the world as well, we need to keep in mind to take it all with a grain of salt. While it is perfectly okay to use the latest gadgets (such as smart phones) to communicate, inform, and entertain ourselves, we need to remember that our basic human need for communication always comes first and that some of the best ways to achieve this need have very little to do with technology and very much to do with face-to-face interactions.