This is the second article of many to come in a series of stories about mental health and well-being on our college campus. The series will have content on mental well-being, resources on campus that help cultivate well-being and conversation of struggle, as well as innovative ways that educate people on ways in which they can destress their lives.
If we know our phones are problematic in connecting with others, why do we choose to use them over having real interaction? Dr. Sherry Turkle is MIT’s Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, who has conducted research and produced content on the ways in which we can become connected and disconnected through cell phone usage. “In the past twenty years, we’ve seen a 40 percent decline in the marker for empathy…most of it within the past ten years,” says Turkle in her recently published New York Times bestseller Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.
But why is this? I would argue that this empathy decline stems significantly from the attachments we have to our cell phones and technology. The absence of empathy causes us to perpetuate our overwhelming feelings of loneliness and we further this by blindly believing our devices will provide us with the comfort and connection we desire. We have thus become less adequate to hold conversations with substance and connection.
I recently lost my phone and after getting over the initial feelings of anxiety and panic from losing a $700 device, I realized that I could use this as an opportunity to have a different experience and become mindful of the ways in which I interact with others. I thought that losing my phone meant I would struggle to feel connected with my friends and the social aspect of my life, but the opposite proved to be true. I found that I felt lighter and happier and carried myself in a way that made me feel true to myself. By not being constantly distracted and craving something to look at through a screen, my awareness of the present deepened and I could see that people appreciated me actually listening to them as they were speaking. The content of the conversations would deepen and in actively listening to others, I could see that they also began to do the same–it seemed to be almost contagious.
“I’ve had like one or two friends where I originally would try to start a serious conversation because they were preoccupied on their phone,” shared University of Redlands sophomore, Amanda Siefert. “Obviously, like, I wasn’t important — that little thing has so much power over a person.”
And it does. I have often had personal experiences interacting with friends to then discover that they were on their devices the entire time, and I’ve also had many conversations with friends where I did the same. This seems to be something many of us are aware of, but fail to change. Why are our phones more important than the person right in front of us? Since when is a rectangular screen more appealing to give our attention to than someone who has real feelings, experiences and conversation?
If people are feeling unheard or even misunderstood, we can start by being mindful about our interactions with others, we can allow ourselves to be more present in dialogue by removing our phones from direct sight and also tell others to kindly do the same. We can enhance our quality of conversation by taking simple, precautionary steps like setting boundaries beforehand, allowing us to begin to dissipate our feelings of loneliness and frustration through our interactions with others.
I like to think of empathy and our ability to connect through conversation as muscles. We can strengthen these and our ability to connect with others through exposing ourselves to conversation and through our moments of device-free solitude. Just as muscles grow through working them out, our capacity for empathy and conversation can too. It’s important for us to recognize that we have control over our lives and how we interact with our devices. In order for us to be successful in our alteration of something that has become habitual, self-efficacy and responsibility are crucial.
My argument isn’t anti-technology. Rather, it is that if we can become mindful of our struggles with conversation and connection, we can allow ourselves to make meaning out of these struggles while simultaneously redirecting technology to benefit our lives. We can create a life full of connection and productivity.
Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer Kristyn Paez.