We only hurt the ones we love: phoning in more bad news

1300 words

Everyone I talk to concedes smartphones are bad for us. Very few agree on exactly what the harms are — let alone what to do about them.

Experts have two main takes on where to look for digital harms. One is directed at the reader. Your digital life is a misery, here’s what to do. Author Paul Greenberg will soon publish iQuit: 50 Things to Do iNstead — and gives us a foretaste in a piece titled “In Search of Lost Screen Time.” With a forthright sub-title: “Imagine what we could do with our money, and hours, if we set our phones aside for a year.”

The other approach is to blame everything on Silicon Valley, and these days who wouldn’t. One recent example is A People’s History of Silicon Valley by Keith Spencer, with another forthright sub-title: “How the tech industry exploits workers, erodes privacy and undermines democracy.”

Other current titles, by the likes of Tim Wu and Bruce Schneier, offer critiques of the big policy issues that are making a bad digital life even worse. Much of that traces back to Silicon Valley’s ill deeds — e.g. their fanatical attempts to kill privacy protection for consumers.

Some people are being encouraged by this growing chorus of criticism. Surely the Valley is feeling the heat and will mend its ways… 

Not a chance. 

Big Tech is going through unprecedented expansion — hiring thousands of new employees, leasing millions of square feet of office space, and growing revenues at a rate that threatens smaller competitors. And we ain’t seen nothing yet, since there’s “so much of life that remains undisrupted,” as the Times’ David Streitfeld writes. The cloud, urban planning, healthcare, transportation, A.I. in everything… everything, period. 

Google wants to make Toronto a SmartCity

The Valley’s relentless onward march is telling us something important: simply blaming Big Tech for our troubles isn’t going to change anything. A better strategy might be to take a hard look at how we got ourselves into this mess, giving up our personal agency to be happily hyperconnected and screen-addicted. That means another division of labor: harms you inflict on yourself vs harms you inflict on others.

Let me illustrate first with a quick tour of gym culture.

No sweat

Once upon a time, gyms had policies about cellphones, especially in the locker room. Their use was strictly forbidden because the built-in cameras were considered an affront to privacy. Nobody minded.

The locker room at my current gym is different — like a state of emergency has been declared. Naked guys still dripping from the shower or steamroom are locked in awkward postures as they catch up on the breath-taking five minutes of life they’ve just missed.

Then there’s the gym floor.

Members text while running on the treadmill. They text and talk while stretching, climbing the stair-climber, between sets, body-builders included. One member rows the rowing machine with only one hand, the better to stay in touch. I’ve seen members texting while their highly qualified personal trainers are stretching them. Hands-free wireless encourages the especially chatty ones to walk all over the gym making important deals. There’s no escape.

I recently asked the general manager whether our club has an explicit policy about phone use. Officially, phones aren’t allowed in classes — or in the locker rooms. But who needs the hassle? Staff would sooner confiscate pipes in a crack house than ask members to stop yelling at their phones.

I had another idea I wanted to test out: is anyone being harmed by this bizarre behavior? So I asked the experts — some of the personal trainers.

I griped to one about being distracted when I’m there to get focussed (harm to others). But never mind my focus. Surely nobody can have a decent workout if their brain is glommed onto stupid Facebook stuff (harm to self).

Baloney, she said, on both counts. First, if I’m having problems with other people distracting me, maybe the problem is me. Second, “distractions” actually encourage many of her clients to work out harder, especially on the cardio machines. Messaging or watching TV makes it easier for them to stay the course, instead of getting bored and quitting.

Another trainer begged to differ. Anyone wanting to see changes in their fitness has got to get out of their comfort zone. Whereas phones help us achieve exactly the opposite: making sure we never ever have to leave the comfort zone.

Nice theory. Sadly the gym is a lousy place to tell someone they’d be healthier and happier if they ditched their phone. It’s an even worse place to tell someone they’re being rude and annoying to a bunch of sweaty strangers. Like, who cares?

Then I stumbled onto Greenberg’s NYT piece and a couple of intriguing links. Forget gym buddies. How about our romantic partners and tiny children?

The ones we love

In a paper published earlier this year, the authors examined the effects of smartphones on romantic relationships among college-aged adults: “Should it stay or should it go now? Smartphones and relational health.” I wanted to find out more for a couple of reasons. These are the young people who’ve been part of my classroom phone confiscation program. Plus I wanted to see if there was any connection to the claim that some people would rather give up sex than their phone.

The participants’ reports on their smartphone dependency showed effects running in two directions. For the participants themselves, “smartphone dependency is significantly linked to relationship uncertainty.” On the other hand, the perception that their partners are smartphone-dependent “predicts less relationship satisfaction.” 

One other finding speaks volumes about the power of mental attitude. Generally speaking, actual smartphone use doesn’t affect relational health. The problem isn’t getting your partner off WhatsApp. Instead, it’s the “psychological reliance on these devices, and one’s need to constantly be connected with his or her smartphone, that potentially affects relationships.”

That sounds like a state of mind in which someone is more likely to reach for their phone than their partner — in order to get over their anxiety about their phone.

Another paper, published in 2017, reports similarly troubling findings, this time about an experiment with 50 infants and their moms: “Digital disruption? Maternal mobile device use is related to infant social-emotional functioning.”

Our neighborhood has more than its share of parents and young children. And it’s easy to be judgmental about what seems to be the default parental gaze. The evidence from this study does indeed claim, a little hesitantly, that “parental withdrawal and unresponsiveness may have negative consequences for children’s social-emotional development.”

Among the effects: when the moms were on their phones, the infants showed more negative affect than when being paid attention to. More frequent reported mobile device use was associated with less room exploration — even controlling for individual differences in temperament. By contrast, when the infants were being paid attention to, they engaged more with both toys and their moms.

This study undoubtedly leaves plenty of work for research psychologists, especially on the long-term effects of parental inattention. It also leaves one big question unanswered: effects aside, how prevalent is this behavior in real life? 

As the evidence of harm rolls in, however, we shouldn’t assume that research alone is going to get partners and parents, or anybody, to change their phone habits. Accountability is going to be elusive.

It’s also good to keep in mind that this cultural warp is not new, nor confined to North America. When it released one of its annual market reports, the British telecom regulator Ofcom had a message. It titled the entire 340-page document A nation addicted to smartphones, noting 37% of adult smartphone users admitted high levels of “addiction” to their phone — a proportion that rose to 60% among teen smartphone users. That report was published in August 2011.