It might be time to think about checking our phone like blowing our nose.
Let’s be honest. You don’t like to watch or listen to people blow their nose. The inverse is also true as well – they don’t want to see or hear us blow our nose either. This is especially the case at meals. But when we really need to blow our nose, we better do it, no matter when and where we are, because things can get ugly and fast. Besides the ick-factor, while one is blowing his or her nose, the person must disconnect from others, at least briefly, to take care of business. The flow of the conversation stops as one must turn attentionfrom engaging with those around to a tissue. Most civilized people know all of this, and we spare each from witnessing nose-blowing…unless it’s urgent.
Checking Phones = Checking Out
Maybe it’s time that we start thinking of checking our phones like the “new” blowing our nose. If we look up from our own smartphones long enough when we are out in public spaces, what we will see his many folks with their heads down and eyes glued to their devices. A recent survey found that the average American checks his or her phone around 80 times per day, with some people checking their phones over 300 times per day. Americans typically spend about 3 hours, 35 minutes per day spent on mobile devices. According to a Pew Research Center survey, about 90% of teens view overuse of screens as a problem, with 60% viewing it as a major problem. Using what’s called “persuasive design,” smartphones and their various apps are made to be addictive (or at least habit-forming).
The Way We Use Our Phones Can Affect Well-Being
While there’s no reason to believe that the sky is falling and our devices are to blame, there are some legitimate reasons to be concerned. Although they are not skyrocketing, rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide have been going up in recent years, coinciding with the increased use of smartphones. This seems to be especially true for that of young people.
Now, just because some measures of well-being and smartphone usage are correlated, does not necessarily mean that mobile devices are causing greater mental health problems at a societal level. Measuring well-being is complicated and many variables are involved. Still, there are many studies that suggest too much time on screens can be detrimental to well-being.
Why would this be? One reason is that while we check our devices, we are disconnecting from the people around us. In fact, there is research that the mere presence of a cell phone, even when they are not buzzing, ringing, or we are checking them, diminishes the quality of in-person social interactions. Studies indicate that much of our happiness, health, and longevity are related to the quality, frequency, and strength of our in-person social relationships.
Out of Sync With Our Evolutionary Heritage
We must remember that, historically, all our social interactions took place in-person. Homo sapiens have existed for approximately 300,000 years, with most of this time spent in small hunter-gatherer, nomadic tribes of around 100-150 people. Human communities didn’t develop until about 10,000-15,000 years ago, and written language didn’t emerge until about 5,000 years ago.
Why does this matter, and what does this have to do with smartphones and nose-blowing, you might ask? Everything! From an evolutionary standpoint, there is no such thing as a “digital native.” Our brains evolved to interact with one another in-person. When viewed from this long-term perspective, we are all digital immigrants. According to the idea of evolutionary mismatch, when we live in a way incongruent with our evolutionary heritage, we will pay a price in terms of our health and well-being. For instance, we didn’t evolve to eat the highly processed, salty, sugary, fatty foods that we now eat (nor in such quantities). This explains, at least in part, why there is an obesity epidemic in America.
Re-Framing Our Phone Use in Public Spaces
It’s time that we reframe how we view our phones because we are going to pay a price in terms of our happiness if we allow them to disrupt our in-person relationships too much. Right now, we are doing the digital equivalent of blowing our noses in front of one another a lot. While it’s difficult to draw a red line on just what “too much” is, one can make a strong argument that we are already there. Just as it’s a bit rude to blow our nose in front of others (unless we really need to), we need to view checking our phones in the presence of others the same way. Phones are a merely tool to be used and then kept silenced and out of sight.
We mustn’t lose sight of the reality that our greatest happiness is found in our in-person social relationships. Our focused attention on these in-person relationships is what nourishes them. This is how Mother Nature “designed” us. We cannot allow our cell phone use to disrupt our in-person relationships any longer. So, the next time you’re tempted to check your phone in public, you should ask yourself, “Do I really need to blow my nose right now?” And for goodness sake, try not to check your phone at meals – it’s kinda gross!