We've all seen it first hand: you get into an elevator with a bunch of strangers and everyone pulls out their phone and fixates on the screen. It's the same scene whether you're waiting for a subway, standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in the doctor's office. Worse, you can go into a restaurant and see friends and couples doing the same thing; spending more time with an electronic device than a fellow human being. There's even a term for this called phubbing; "the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention." I saw it first-hand one evening in Ireland this past summer: a teenaged couple sat at a table in a pub barely acknowledging one another in favor of the devices in their hands.
"Everyone just tunes each other out," conventional wisdom says with a mixture of sadness and contempt. "Nobody wants to engage with others any more. Our smartphones are killing society."
Smartphones are ubiquitous. IDC reports that over 330 million smartphones were shipped in the second quarter of 2014, and "At this pace, 2014 promises to close at nearly 1.3 billion [smartphone] shipments." The report is worth looking at to see how each mobile platform (Android, iOS, etc.) is doing, but my point here is that the smartphone habit is here to stay. So how are we dealing with it?
I recently wrote about "10 ways mobile devices are changing society," but I intentionally left out the 11th and most significant way since I wanted to devote a full article to the question to explore it further: are mobile devices changing how people interact with another... or causing them to neglect to do so? Is conventional wisdom correct? Are we all devolving into Neanderthals who will one day do little more than grunt incoherently at one another while staring at our screens (some might say we're already there!), the fine art of face-to-face conversation utterly destroyed? Is this proof that humanity is on a downward spiral where we'll all eventually be pure loners incapable of empathy or emotion for one another?
Well, not exactly.
Some things are just that way
In the first place, there have always been escape hatches for antisocial or just plain bored people to use in order to avoid contact with others. If it involves something to preoccupy your time, you can use it to ignore people, whether it's a book, a crossword puzzle, a music player or a smartphone. If you're playing Candy Crush or some other solitary pursuit on a smartphone it might be argued you're missing out on the society around you, but many people who seek to be left alone for some quiet time just aren't going to walk up to strangers and ask about their day in the absence of all other forms of entertainment. It's a foolish argument to state that antisocial people will become social butterflies with no escape hatches to avoid it: people are going to gravitate to their comfort zones (but it's a valid question to ask: are those comfort zones getting TOO comfortable and luring more people away from other zones they should be treading in?)
The unique advantage
Secondly, there's an element smartphones bring to the table which is missing from the other potential distractions I mentioned above: they can actually expand your social world. When people are on their phones they're generally communicating with someone, whether it's a coworker, friend, significant other, or even strangers on the internet with whom they're exchanging comments or playing games. As a result, the rules of engagement are changing - certainly those annoying text abbreviations are common vernacular now - and so are the borders of socialization. Thanks to social media it's now almost possible to virtually experience what your friends and family are doing in real-time format, thanks to pictures, status updates and other play-by-play exposures. Granted, many people make the mistake of devaluing their immediate experience by focusing more on spreading it (read: bragging) to others, and it's clear that much of what is shared need not be, such as pictures of food in a restaurant or the obvious laments that "Friday is too far away/I really need coffee!. However, this is still a far cry from blocking out the world through reclusive behavior like huddling in the basement playing Atari games. Note: I for one like Atari games but there has to be a balance.
Giving and taking as part of the big picture
Thirdly, mobility brings us instant access to information both as consumers and producers building a give and take environment. Perhaps some may take more than give, but as the saying goes, "no man is an island," and the elements of mobility and what it's used for define connections to others and a reliance on ideas, developments, strategies and engagement. People post concepts. Developers build apps. Events produce feedback. This engages users, though understandably at the expense of equally engaging material in the world around them on which they might miss out.
Making the world a smaller place
Finally, the communication benefits offered by our smartphones allow us to meet and keep in touch with people we might never have ordinarily known. I have many work colleagues I've never met in person but with whom I've carried out enlightening conversations through email and messaging. I have family members and neighbors in my social media list that live throughout the country, and I have been able to keep up on what they're doing to get to know them, and vice versa. It's absurd to state a smartphone makes you less social if you're using it to interact with others, but it's also worth questioning the quality of those social connections you're focused on. Social media speaker Jay Baer puts it eloquently: "Maybe we should be focused less on making a lot of connections, and focused more on making a few real friends."
What's the verdict?
A smartphone is a tool which can be used a lot or a little, for valid and enriching purposes or to waste time and miss out on opportunities. It really boils down to the same argument that has been applied to cars, guns, alcohol, and other such "vehicles": some can use them correctly and others cannot. Ways to use them constructively are what we need, not Luddite sniffs of superiority that "smartphones turn you into a tech zombie which is why I refuse to own one." People chose to ride horses when the automobile was developed too, but that quickly became antiquated. I'm not saying mobile devices don't exacerbate existing problems - low attention span, technological dependency, shyness, inability to approach strangers, etc. It can certainly be argued smartphones are making us dumb.
As to whether smartphones are making people less social, the answer is "it depends on the individual." A person's interests, values, priorities and even attention span will be the best answer to that question. Some will use the device for increased socialization with their extended network while participating in the world around them. Some will fall prey to situations where a smartphone disrupts one form of socialization such as hanging out with friends in favor of another form which overwhelms the user's attention; engaging in an electronic chat with someone else, oblivious of what's going on in the immediate vicinity. And there will be those who use them to tune everything out entirely, which is more a sign of their own disinterest - or at least their inability to resist compulsion. The moral here is that it's not always easy to apply a single answer to a complex question involving differing personalities and pursuits; we have to look more closely at the people and situations involved to determine how the answer individually applies. It's a see-saw upon which individuals will be perched at varying positions, and that concept is perfectly illustrated by an iOS app called Cloak which can alert you that friends are nearby so you can associate with them... or avoid them entirely.
I think it's worth examining further how we can use smartphones to evolve while retaining human connections and maintaining the day-to-day slices of life that build our environment. Studies upon the sociological aspect of this technology would definitely be welcome.
An unexpected twist
By the way, that couple in the pub I mentioned? I had a conversation with the boy in question and lightly joked: "Boy, dating sure has changed since I was your age. Back then we spent more time sweating over what we were going to say next and less time working on our abacuses."
"Oh, we're not dating," he responded. "We work together in the kitchen, 4-5 days a week, 8-10 hours per day. We talk all the time. By the end of shift, though, you're tired and just want a break to recharge and get caught up with what's going on in the world. Emails from my mom and dad and so forth. After several hours of chit-chat I think maybe she and I'd just run out of stuff to say for one day!"
What do you think? Are smartphones making society better, or worse?
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.