The fear that digital distractions are ruining our lives and friendships is widespread.
To be sure, digital addiction is real. Consider the 2,600 times we touch our phones every day, our panic when we temporarily misplace a device, the experience of “phantom vibration syndrome” and how merely seeing a message alert can be as distracting as checking the message itself.
This can have real consequences. For example, other people do take it personally if you stop talking to them to answer a message. And taking a break from a task to look at your cell phone precludes deep thinking on whatever you were doing.
But this tells only part of the story. We need to also acknowledge that today’s technologies can make us more connected than ever before.
So how do we avoid the potential pitfalls while still reaping the benefits?
How screens affect our interactions
As a researcher in the area of technology and communications, I have spent nearly two decades looking at the ways in which interacting via screens is different from interacting in other ways, including face-to-face, on the phone and in writing.
My research group has produced study after study showing that people are more self-serving (that is, they lie more), more negative (for example, giving others lower feedback ratings), and less cooperative (more “looking out for number one” behavior) when they use digital means of communicating. And for children under 5, there are serious concerns for brain development.
Our fears about the impact of increasing amounts of screen time on ourselves and our children involve three main areas: mental health, addiction, and the level of engagement with what’s going on around us. In all three, the risks are generally overblown.
As for addiction, the field of psychology has now recognized video game addiction as a genuine and diagnosable problem. Stories from rehab centers for people whose lives have been consumed by this addiction suggest the phenomenon is real and the suffering can be quite genuine.
But this is rare compared with the numbers of people who play online games without serious consequences.
And in terms of engagement, despite growing amounts of time spent on screens, the vast majority of kids do still get educated, make friends, and go on to lead productive lives.
A more connected world
As more and more of our interactions move away from the traditional face-to-face and into the online realm, I believe we must recognize that in some areas, richness and engagement may also be on the rise.
Colleagues can work together from afar, friends can keep in touch without restraint, and grandparents can directly touch base with their grandkids without needing to schedule a visit or go through the parents.
Language changes as we interact in shorter bursts, allowing us to connect in less formal ways. Humor changes as we are able to add visuals—pictures, emojis, GIFs, memes—to our words. Even those online video games can be a portal to increased social interactions for some.
Do you have a problem?
Perhaps the best way to evaluate time spent with our phones is to ask two related questions.
First, what are you doing with the time you’re devoting to your phone, and is it consistent with your values and priorities?
If you feel that you and your kids are enjoying your screen time and not risking sleep, work, or in-person interactions, you may not have much reason for concern. To help with this task, tools and apps that can track your screen time and let you know where your attention is being directed—or even limit where it can go—are becoming more prevalent.
Secondly, what are your blind spots about where and how phone use might be limiting the rest of your life?
Most of us realize we shouldn’t use phones right before bed—or, even worse, when driving or crossing streets—and we know we should keep an eye on our kids and teenagers to ensure that they are building good habits both inside and outside the digital realm. But we’re less clear on how our phones might be affecting our lives in other ways.
The latest research offers some lessons. For starters, we’re not as good as we think at multitasking: We generally give worse attention to both tasks when we try to do two things at once. Over time, people who do this constantly end up with greater error rates on tasks, perhaps linked to poorer working memories.
Finding that ever-elusive balance
All of this means that even though you may not need to worry about your phone use overall, there are still moments when you’d be wise to put your device out of sight and earshot. This will give you the best chance to think about complex tasks without interruption or to engage more fully with those around you.
Putting down our phones completely seems neither realistic nor desirable: Society has moved forward, phones in hand.
But choosing the moments where being phone-free is most valuable can help keep you on track.