student on phone

A student messages on a smartphone.

The eyes are windows to the soul, and yet, many eyes are glued to smartphones now. Enraptured by the endless sea of stimulation provided by a screen, the incentive to start a conversation is drastically reduced.

In full disclosure, the above conclusion is based largely on my observations throughout campus. Although I reference studies examining the effect of cell phones below, I recognize my bias toward the subject.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the oblivion induced by the accessibility of a screen. As I commute across campus, I often pass other students who gaze into a phone resting in their palm.

Many students are similarly entranced in dining halls, where with lowered eyes they mechanically eat, paying little attention to their surroundings. Such a distraction minimizes new social connections and interactions.

This conclusion finds support in recent scientific studies. One paper, published in 2019, surveyed over 1,500 undergraduate students and concluded that students addicted to smartphones experienced more social interaction anxiety than those without significant smartphone addiction.

The anxiety further encourages people to dive into their phones, finding solace in a groomed digital world. Why work to meet new people when tailored enjoyment is only a few taps away?

For example, I have met new people and experienced an awkward or unpleasant conversation with them. Within a smartphone, however, users can choose who and what they see, eliminating the possibility of discomfort.

Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and sociologist, articulates this point in a 2015 interview, asserting that smartphones provide “[a] feeling that you don’t have to commit yourself 100 percent and you can avoid the terror that there will be a moment in an interaction when you’ll be bored.”

I admit that technology is inexorably practical and useful; I take issue not with the utility it provides, but rather the ubiquitousness and context in which it is used.

With dual functions of entertainment or work, it is impossible to discern the purpose of one’s phone use. They may be checking an important email or watching a comical video – such ambiguity makes it difficult to start a conversation for fear of disturbing constructive work.

Despite these arguments, it has been argued that cell phones increase social interaction. A 2007 study supports this claim, stating “[mobile phone use] seems to increase the involvement and socialization of students with their families.”

Turkle agrees, saying, “if you’re a social person … your use of social media becomes part of your social profile.”

However, for an introvert like myself, I see phones as an additional barrier to social interaction and another hurdle to overcome in the process of initiating conversation.

In the absence of smartphones, I see people who are bored or unoccupied, which – for me – is an ideal moment to start a new conversation. However, phones provide constant entertainment.

If I start a conversation when someone is on their phone, I do not free them from boredom; rather, I deprive them of their entertainment. In my experience, most people prefer indulgence instead of deprivation.

Smartphones distract from reality in the name of connecting with others, yet I see the very usage of a phone as antisocial behavior: an implicit sign, stating, “Don’t bother me.”

The ushering in of a new year is a perfect time to evaluate who (and what) receives my attention, and the signals I’m sending to others around me. Where will you spend your attention?

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