Jessica Grogan, Ph.D.

Jessica Grogan Ph.D.

Encountering America

How Do Our Smartphones Threaten Our Happiness?

The internet fills even spaces we don't invite it into.

Posted Sep 23, 2013

When I first started teaching a class on psychology and American culture (in 2004), I included an assignment called a “media fast.” It required that students spend 24 hours disconnected from all technology (phones, computers, etc), and that they reflect on their reponse. They were, predictabily, made uncomfortable, and some more than others. Many of them reported psychological symptoms, like anxiety, panic, or a loss of control. However, most of them also felt a heightened sense of freedom. One student described the experience of walking across the quad without being on her cell phone. She noticed things like the breeze, the squirrels playing on the grass, birds splashing in the fountain. A couple students felt more self-aware, and were better able to think clearly about things that had been bothering them. Another student shamefully admitted that she didn’t make it through the entire 24 hours.

The last time I assigned a media fast (in 2008), not one of my students completed it. Most viewed it as impossible, and didn’t even attempt it.

That kind of breaks my heart.

Many social critics warn about disclocation through technology. But it’s a sly kind of dislocation. The internet came into our lives meeting very real needs. As William Deresiewicz (2009) writes:

the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. But as the Internet's dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing.

But the other thing the internet has done is to create new needs and to fill whatever space it can find. This includes space for feeling and reflection. Deresiewicz (2009) also writes, "Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can."

He argues that our new forms of connectivity have changed the equation to the point that our lives are unrecognizeable. In the interest of being known to each other, young people don’t guard their own hidden depths, or even recognize them. They might not even understand why it’s important to be interior in this way. As Kenneth Gergen (2000) writes, “In the fast pace of a technological society, concern with the inner life is a luxury, if not a waste of time. We now celebrate the protean being capable of moving facilely across a sea of complex conditions. In the world of Plastic Fantastic Man, the interior self loses significance” (p. 207).

The fact that these themes (loss of solitude, reflection, deep feeling) resonate with us is embodied in the popularity of a video that went viral this past week. The clip is of comedian Louis CK on the Conan O’Brien show, and he’s talking about why it’s a horrible idea for kids to have smart phones.

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it...

That’s why people text and drive and kill each with their cars, he says, to avoid the thing that has become most intolerable: just being, just really feeling what it is to exist, to be poised between life and death in a world of great joy and great sadness.

References

Gergen, K. J. (2000). The self in the age of information. The Washington Quarterly 23 (1), 201-214.

Deresiewica, W. (2009). The end of solitude. The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, accessed at http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708