Last week, Dr Berney and I did a brief podcast on an article by Claire Moffatt and Ryan Anderson. What captured our attention in this piece is the notion that the brain system involved in detecting and preventing physical pain has been co-opted by the social attachment system. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In many languages, there are words and phrases that describe social separation in terms of physical pain. Phrases like ‘my heart is broken’, ‘she died of a broken heart’, ‘the pain of separation’, all use physical pain to describe the feelings produced by social separation and a loss of ‘connectedness’ to others. As the authors note, ‘…the importance of being socially connected with others is undeniable. In recent times there has been a flurry of research pointing to the immutable and irrepressible fact that the benefits of physical intimacy are considerable for both psychological and physical health.’ The authors then list a host of benefits that accrue from physical intimacy.
As I was perusing the news the next morning, I stumbled on another article with the title, ‘The iPhone turns 10 – and it’s isolated us, not united us.’ This article was written by Dr Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. It first appeared in The Conversation on June 26, three days before the 10th birthday of the iPhone (29th June 2007). I knew the iPhone has been around about ten years; I didn’t know it had a birthday.
(I have to pause here to chuckle. The first sidewalk lanes for those who walk and text at the same time were just established in China. At least in China, you can text and walk without fear of bumping into things or other people or falling off a step you didn’t know was there).
The reason that the iPhone became indispensable is not because it was a better phone, but because Apple transformed the portable phone into a portable computer. Everyone loves to remind listeners that there is more computer capacity in an iPhone than in the room full of computers that were used to get astronauts to the moon and back.
That’s an interesting factoid, but the real news is that we now have the internet in our pocket. When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, he stated, ‘Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.’ Though never one for understatement, I doubt that even he knew how much everything was going to change.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience of a smartphone. I love to ‘google’ things. In fact, I love that ‘google’ is a verb. And I love that I can keep up with the important people in my life.
But, as Dr Twenge notes, all this power and all this convenience is coming at a cost. Actually, there are several costs. The first is addiction. We are becoming addicted to our devices. Call it what you want, but when you can’t function without something, it’s an addiction. And the younger you are the more likely it is that you will develop the addiction. The first generation of children who grew up with smartphones are approaching adulthood, and they are very different than previous generations and even older siblings. I have a 34-year old son (a millennial) and an 18-year old daughter (an iGen), and they think about and use their smartphones in completely different ways. She is addicted, he is not.
One of the most frequent complaints we hear from parents is that their teenagers are addicted to their phones. And these parents are correct. Teens are addicted. They are addicted in the sense that almost everything they do during the day (socialise, read, watch videos, play games, do research, plan their next meal, or to follow their favourite team) is all on the portable computer.
Also, if you are a teenager, a singular focus is your connection with multiple others. Prior to the smartphone, we communicated with one person at a time. Now we can communicate with several groups of friends almost simultaneously. Children can be making plans with their teammates, texting one set of friends about homework, texting another set about plans for the weekend, getting instructions from parents for that evening’s activities, watching YouTube videos, sending Instagrams and Snapchats to others, all while practising their selfie poses. They – and increasingly we – are addicted because we rely on this device for almost everything we do.
Second, there is an emerging research literature to suggest that social media and electronic communication have negative consequences on mental health. The problem, it seems, is that when individuals focus more on their devices than they do on their partner, the disconnect can cause depression in the person being ignored. We have all seen disconnection in action. A couple at dinner who, instead of talking to each other, are immersed in their devices. Family members on their devices during a family meal.
Sherry Turkle is a sociologist who did a documentary on Steve Jobs in 2015. She discussed the increasing isolation and called it the ‘alone together’ phenomenon. Ironically, she noted that a device that makes communication so fast and so easy, ‘has turned out to be an isolating technology’.
The third problem takes us back to that issue of connectedness. That is, we are beginning to understand the effect of relying on electronic devices is having on the development of social skills. As with any other ability, social skills must be practised in order to develop. But if most of a person’s time is spent focused on a screen, are they being denied the ability to develop their social skills. Carrying on a two-way conversation is a skill that develops over time and improves with practice. Stop conversing and the skill declines. It’s not just that youngsters are not developing social skills; adults who rely on digital devices will begin losing social skills that were already developed.
Although it is incredibly convenient and useful, a smartphone is a tool. Way back in 2014, Steven Bilton of the New York Times wrote an article titled, ‘Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent’, When Bilton asked Jobs if his kids liked the iPad, Jobs responded that his children had never used one, stating, ‘we limit how much technology our kids use at home.’
And Jobs is not the only high-tech executive to set limits. He goes on to cite other executives who set strict limits on their children’s use and access to digital devices. Chris Anderson is the former editor of Wired. His children accuse him of being a fascist arguing that none of their friends have the same rules (sound familiar?). He and his wife set limits because they fear their children will become addicted. They also have one other firm rule: ‘No screens in the bedroom. Full stop. Ever.’
Alex Constantinople is the head of a technology marketing company. Their older children (ages 10–13) are limited to 30 minutes of ‘gadget time’ per day on school nights. Dick Costolo, chief executive of Twitter, allow unlimited use of gadgets by their teenage children as long as they were in the living room and could be monitored.
There’s an important message here. The very people who know the most of these devices express the most concern about the possibility of their children becoming addicted to them and of giving up other things (like books and conversation). At the Jobs’ dinner table, for example, there are no devices; instead they talked about ‘books, history, and a variety of things’. So, if you are thinking setting some limits on your and your children’s use and access, please know that you are in good company and there are innumerable reasons for doing so.
Richard Marshall is the co-host Psychreg Podcast and is an editorial board member of Psychreg Journal of Psychology. He earned an EdD in reading and learning disabilities at West Virginia University (WVU) in 1982. Upon completion of his degree he became an Assistant Professor of Paediatrics at the WVU Medical School. After moving to Florida in 1983, he joined the faculty in the Department of Paediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of South Florida and worked for five years in the Neonatal Developmental Follow-Up Programme.