Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Are You Phubbing At Home or Work?

phubbingYou’ve probably had lunch with someone who can’t stop texting or checking their phone while they’re supposedly spending time with you.

Maybe you’ve done it yourself when meeting with a client or colleague.

But did you know that simply having your phone in sight – even if it’s face-down and unattended – will affect the nature of the personal interaction?

And not just because it’s an annoyance. It will actually change what is said and heard.

“[E]ven a silent phone inhibits conversations that matter,” says clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. “The very sight of a phone on the landscape leaves us feeling less connected to each other, less invested in each other.”

This lost connection, says Turkle, who directs MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, is the result of dependence on our electronic devices.

“We begin to think of ourselves as a tribe of one, loyal to our own party,” she writes. “We check our messages during a quiet moment or when the pull of the online world feels irresistible. Even children text each other rather than talk face-to-face with friends – or for that matter, rather than daydream, where they take time alone with their thoughts.”

But Everybody Does It!

A Pew survey showed that 89 percent of adults use their phone during social encounters to contact someone else. They did so even though 82 percent of them acknowledged it detracted from the face-to-face conversation.

And we tend to delude ourselves about how much we use our phones. Two-thirds of respondents said their personal usage was “below average” or “well below average” – a statistical impossibility.

“It all adds up to a flight from conversation – at least conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. Yet these are the conversations in which empathy and intimacy flourish and social action gains strength. These are the conversations in which the creative collaborations in education and business thrive.”

Here are some other insights from Turkle:

  • A mediated life is dehumanizing. “Face-to-face conversation is the most human thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstones of early development and continue throughout our lives.”
  • We turn to our devices when we find real life boring. “And we often find ourselves bored because we are accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information and entertainment. We are forever elsewhere.”
  • We “phub” instead of paying full attention. “There is now a word in the dictionary called ‘phubbing.’ It means maintaining eye contact while texting. My students tell me they do it all the time and it’s not that hard. At class or at church or in business meetings we pay attention to what interests us, and then when it doesn’t we look to our devices to find something that does.”
  • We use devices to hide our true selves from others. “These days we find ways around conversations. We hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other. For on our screens we are tempted to present ourselves as we would like to be. Of course, performance is part of any meeting, anywhere, but online, and at our leisure, it is easy to compose, edit and improve.”
  • We should seek balance between in-person and digital contacts. “The ones who balance it are the ones who when they’re together, they’re together.”
  • We’re losing the ability to be alone with our thoughts for even a few minutes. “We see it when people are alone at the stop sign or in the checkout line at the supermarket. They seem almost panicked and they reach for their phones. We are so accustomed to being connected that being alone seems like a problem technology should solve.

 Despite all this, Turkle is optimistic. She says humans are resilient. She cites a study that shows children at a device-free summer camp quickly became more empathetic, curious and appreciative of the natural beauty surrounding them.

“Mobile technology is here to stay, along with all the wonders it brings,” she writes.  “Yet it is time for us to consider how it gets in the way of other things we hold dear – and how once we recognize this we can take action.. We can both redesign technology and change how we bring it into our lives.”



About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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