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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Is it really so hard to make eye contact?

Smartphones are evil and are ruining not only our generation, but Western civilization as a whole. Seriously, put down your phone every once in a while. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I should first admit that I am part of the increasingly small minority of Millennials—and of Americans, actually—who do not own a smartphone. 

I’ll explain why, and hopefully my reasoning will convince at least a few of you to at least think about whether your smartphone use might be a bit excessive. 

Everyone by now has suffered the infuriating experience of receiving less than someone’s entire attention because they are preoccupied by their smartphone. I’ve often gotten the feeling, when interacting with smartphone users, that they are actually incapable of a normal level of human empathy and intimacy, not only when they are using their smartphone, but also to a lesser degree when they have their precious device on their person but are not even using it. The available connection is a constant conversational risk.

Furthermore, on the rare occasions that users are actually separated from their devices, they seem to be able to give their full attention and to regain the humanity one loses under the spell of those devices. That is, until the smartphone withdrawals kick in. Nomophobia is a cruel mistress. Maybe I shouldn’t make light of alcoholism and drug addiction with that analogy, but the behavior is undeniably similar. 

A recent set of studies by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex suggests that having a smartphone within arm’s length significantly impairs intimacy in face-to-face verbal communication with strangers. 

The research suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the effect is even greater on conversations between people who already know each other. 

Some therapists contend that they are especially harmful to romantic relationships. This is even more dangerous than the potential friends and lovers lost to Google searches or Fruit Ninja—not even our current, probably insufficient level of human connection is safe. That terrifies me, especially as the last of my non-smartphone-using friends convert.

Dr. Shalini Misra, a psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, similarly found that the presence of a smartphone led people to rate conversations as less fulfilling in one study and that they inhibited feelings of empathy in another. She and other researchers also concluded that their symbolic value promoted feelings of resentment, and sometimes the sheer rudeness of this compulsion is the problem. 

Misra has also written about how smartphones make people miss subtle but important cues in tone or facial expression and inhibit the profoundly important social function of eye contact. This is a really profound problem that should ring true with anyone living in the year 2015, especially young people. 

The next generation will not have had the childhoods and adolescences free from these devices that we had, during which we at least developed the crucial social skills upon which the very fabric of civilization depends up to a baseline level. We have since eroded those skills with the constant distractions and countless shallow, meaningless online interactions of the Smartphone Era, but at least they were there to erode. 

As perhaps the last generation able to fully feel empathy and to be able to genuinely engage with others, we have a unique responsibility to the world. So, for yourself, for your loved ones and for society, put down your phone. And then turn it off, put it away in a drawer and leave it at home for a while. 

Follow Martin Forstrom on Twitter.

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