The smartphone revolution is realizing the technological dream of a computer for every person in a way that much of the technology before it could never do. We now have an incredible wealth of information at our fingertips and our smartphones allow us to document and share our lives in new ways. But new technology is never entirely positive and smartphones do seem to be changing our ideas about what’s socially acceptable.
It’s easy to joke about smartphone addiction, but for some people it’s a real problem. Let me paint you a picture or two. You’re on the bus or train and everyone has a smartphone in hand that they’re glued to. You’re sat around the dinner table and there’s no conversation because people are texting away or reading on their phones. You’re in a store and the person in front of you doesn’t notice it’s their turn at the counter because they’re on the phone. You’re in an actual conversation and you, or the person you’re talking to, stops to remove smartphone from pocket, prioritizing the device over the person.
Where’s the line? What would you consider rude? Are smartphones really making us ill-mannered?
Killing social awkwardness
Where a newspaper once served as a normal part of the daily commute many of us are now content to sit and read on our smartphones. Other than smartphones offering greater convenience, there’s no real difference here.
Because we have smartphones with us all the time we can use them to fill gaps in our day and a lot of those gaps are about social awkwardness. You could say pulling a smartphone out of your pocket while you wait for a friend at a bar is putting up a barrier to potential conversations with a stranger, but it also allows you to feel more comfortable, and who says you want to talk to a stranger anyway?
Critics suggest that the lack of thinking time, where you’re not actively engaged could be bad for creativity and general mental health. Maybe it’s good to just sit and contemplate sometimes. Maybe a day dream is more useful than a short video of a man being hit in the balls with a football. It’s tough to say for certain because there’s no easy way for most of us to measure our mental health, but it’s a plausible idea.
Smartphones also change the way we arrange and cancel social outings. When’s the last time you actually phoned someone to cancel a social arrangement? Do you talk to every person you’ve invited to a party beforehand? Most of us use social media or texting. It’s by far the easiest way to arrange group events, but it also makes it much easier to opt out without any social awkwardness.
Are Facebook birthday wishes really thoughtful? Is it okay to put maybe and then type out a lazy excuse at the last minute? What’s the impact on our relationships? Is it better than turning up for a short while and then making an excuse to leave early?
You could argue that the ability to handle this stuff on our smartphones removes the need to develop certain social skills. The less face-to-face socializing we engage in, the harder we find it, and it’s easy to see how smartphones can have a negative impact here.
How far is too far?
There are loads of studies about our obsession with smartphones. Nomophobia and phantom vibrations are taken as signs that smartphone use is going too far. This Mobile Consumer Habits study from last year is a great example as it offers a breakdown of when U.S. adults have admitted to using their smartphones:
- 55% while driving
- 35% in a movie theater
- 33% on a dinner date
- 32% at a child’s school function
- 19% in church
- 12% in the shower
- 9% during sex
Using your smartphone while driving actually makes you dangerous and that’s why a raft of new laws has been introduced worldwide to try and combat the practice.
Most of the rest of the list is about social manners. It can be distracting and very annoying when a smartphone screen blinks to life in the movie theater, or someone holds up their phone to record live music (a video they’ll probably never watch back). A lot of people will see that behavior as rude in other people, but they won’t apply it to themselves.
Smartphone usage is also much more acceptable to the younger generation. The 18-34 age group use smartphones more often and in more situations. That usage during sex figure rises to 20% for them, but surely they’re using them to record the action? The study doesn’t specify, but if they’re on Facebook or playing Candy Crush that would seem like a serious problem to me.
How you use your phone in the privacy of your own home is up to you, but most people would agree the widespread use of them in social situations is irritating at best. You may be conditioned to respond to that buzz or alarm instantly, but that doesn’t make it okay to cut off a real conversation in order to check your phone. Some people will sit with phone in hand all night and only vaguely aim the odd snippet of conversation at the people they’re actually with.
Why does the need to be constantly connected to the online world through our phones override the here and now?
Don’t blame the smartphone
The smartphone is really just a good delivery device for the Internet. The underlying compulsion that makes people check their smartphones is invariably email, social media, or web browsing. In a few cases it might facilitate another addiction like gambling or gaming.
It seems like a stretch to say that smartphones are killing social skills because people can choose to ignore them and only use them where appropriate, but a lot of us don’t. Smartphone use by one person in a group often triggers a wave, they’ve given everyone else an opportunity to check their phones and it’s better than sitting there awkwardly. Some people recognize that it’s unacceptable to check their smartphones in company, but they’ll do it when they take a bathroom break or go to the bar to get a drink.
How often do you check your smartphone in company and find something that was really worth checking for? Will this go further for the next generation growing up with smartphones? Is it already more acceptable for them to use smartphones in company? Could we lose social skills through lack of practice?