The Truth About Why Our Real Connections Are Disappearing

In January 2019, I wrote a blog ‘Are we too busy to connect to real people? – this blog had more significant views than any single blog I have ever written in the last 7 years, and there have been a ‘few’: a total of 560 blogs across topics.

My engagement in the subject and some alarming statistics, not to mention mental health awareness, made me think that we all should start to understand the need for more human to human interaction and fulfilment from others, our work, our loved ones, our friends and importantly why we need to make time for each other.

A decade ago, smart devices promised to change the way we think and interact, and they have, but not by making us smarter. I now explore the growing body of scientific evidence that digital distraction is damaging our minds.

Today, it is estimated that more than 5 billion people have mobile devices, and over half of these connections are smartphones and it’s changing the way we do countless things, from taking photos to summoning taxis.

A recent report from Hitachi Vantara in collaboration with MIT, ‘From innovation to monetization: The economics of data-driven transformation’ cites the exponential growth in ‘big data’, arising from the multiplicity of data sources from sensors, edge devices and other connected devices. It cites expert estimates that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day, piling up to over 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020.

A statement from IDC on the same subject “150 billion systems and devices will be connected across the globe by 2025”

Smartphones have also changed us, culturally and in our behaviour – changed our natures in elemental ways, reshaping the way we think and interact. For all their many conveniences, it is here, in the way they have changed not just industries or habits but people themselves.

The evidence for this is research by psychiatrists, neuroscientists, marketers and public health experts. What these people say – and what their research shows – is that smartphones are causing real damage to our minds and relationships, measurable in seconds shaved off the average attention span, reduced brain power, declines in work-life balance and hours less of family and friends time.

They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

Consider this: In the first five years of the smartphone era, the proportion of internet and app users who said internet use interfered with their family time nearly tripled, from 11 per cent to 28 per cent. And this: Smartphone use takes about the same cognitive toll as losing a full night’s sleep. In other words, they are making us worse at being alone and worse at being together.

Ten years into the smartphone experiment, we may be reaching a tipping point. Buoyed by mounting evidence and a growing chorus of tech-world goliaths, smartphone users are beginning to recognise the downside of the convenient little mini-computer we keep pressed against our thigh or cradled in our palm, not to mention buzzing on our bedside table while we sleep.

With all of these statistics, and with the projected speed of 5G networks, simply said, 5G is widely believed to be smarter, faster and more efficient than 4G. It promises mobile data speeds that far outstrip the fastest home broadband network currently available to consumers. With speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second, 5G is set to be as much as 100 times faster than 4G, how will it affect us, humans?

More recently, researchers who study the relationship of mobile phone use and mental health have also found that excessive or “maladaptive” use of our phones may be leading to greater incidences of depression and anxiety in users. according to The Mental Health Foundation, the following statistics apply:

  • 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year
  • 676 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide (2)
  • At any given time, 1 in 6 working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill-health (3)
  • Mental illness is the largest single source of burden of disease in the UK. Mental illnesses are more common, long-lasting and impactful than other health conditions (4)
  • Mental ill-health is responsible for 72 million working days lost and costs £34.9 billion each year (5)
  • Note: Different studies will estimate the cost of mental ill-health in different ways. Other reputable research estimates this cost to be as high as £74–£99 billion (6)
  • The total cost of mental ill-health in England is estimated at £105 billion per year (1)

https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/research-and-evaluation/mental-health-statistics/

Nowhere is the dawning awareness of the problem with smartphones more acute than in the California idylls that created them. Last year, ex-employees of Google, Apple and Facebook, including former top executives, began raising the alarm about smartphones and social media apps, warning especially of their effects on children.

Chris Marcellino, who helped develop the iPhone’s push notifications at Apple, told The Guardian newspaper that smartphones hook people using the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs.

Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook, recently admitted that the world-bestriding social media platform was designed to hook users with spurts of dopamine, a complicated neurotransmitter released when the brain expects a reward or accrues fresh knowledge. “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” he said. “[The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Peddling this addiction made Mr Parker and his tech-world colleagues absurdly rich. Facebook is now valued at a little more than half a trillion dollars.

Global revenue from smartphone sales reached $435-billion (U.S.).

Now, some of the early executives of these tech firms look at their success as tainted.

“I feel tremendous guilt,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, in a public talk in November. “I think we all knew in the back of our minds… something bad could happen.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he went on gravely, before a hushed audience at Stanford business school. “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave.”

Business leaders are grappling with the issue, too. In a recent blog post, Bank of England analyst Dan Nixon argues that the distraction wrought by smartphones may be hurting productivity. It takes office workers an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after an interruption, he notes, while workers who are habitually interrupted by e-mail become likelier to “self-interrupt” with little procrastination breaks.

If we have lost control over our relationship with smartphones, it is by design.

In fact, the business model of the devices demands it. Because most popular websites and apps don’t charge for access, the internet is financially sustained by eyeballs. That is, the longer and more often you spend staring at Facebook or Google, the more money they can charge advertisers.

To ensure that our eyes remain firmly glued to our screens, our smartphones – and the digital worlds they connect us to – internet giants have become little virtuosos of persuasion, cajoling us into checking them again and again – and for longer than we intend.

On some level, we know that smartphones are designed to be addictive. The way we talk about them is steeped in the language of dependence, albeit playfully: the CrackBerry, the Instagram fix, the Angry Bird binge.

But the best minds who have studied these devices are saying it’s not really a joke. Consider the effect smartphones have on our ability to focus.

But John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on attention-deficit disorder, said the problem is actually getting worse. “We’re not developing the attention muscles in our brain nearly as much as we used to,” he said.

In fact, Prof. Ratey has noticed a convergence between his ADD patients and the rest of the world. The symptoms of people with ADD and people with smartphones are “absolutely the same,” he said.

A recent study of Chinese middle schoolers found something similar. Among more than 7,000 students, mobile phone ownership was found to be “significantly associated” with levels of inattention seen in people with attention-deficit disorder.

Maybe studies like these have gotten so little attention because we already know, vaguely, that smartphones dent concentration – how could a buzzing, flashing computer in our pocket have any other effect?

But people tend to treat attention span like some discrete mental faculty, such as skill at arithmetic, that is nice to have but that plenty of folks manage fine without.

Researchers at Cambridge University showed recently that eye contact synchronizes the brainwaves of infant and parent, which helps with communication and learning.

Meeting each other’s gaze, Ms Sandink says, amounts to “a silent language between the baby and the mom.” That doesn’t mean breastfeeding mothers need to lock eyes with their children 24 hours a day. But while Ms Sandink emphasises that she isn’t trying to shame women, she worries that texting moms may be missing out on vital bonding time with their babies.

While email and mobile technology have greatly accelerated the way we do business, Leslie Perlow argues that the always “on” mentality can have a long-term detrimental effect on many organisations. In her sociological experiments at BCG and other organisations, Perlow found that if the team –- rather than just individuals – collectively rallies around a goal or personal value, it unleashes a process that creates better work and better lives.

Leslie Perlow is the Konsuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School and author of the book, “Sleeping With Your Smartphone”

See below her video: “Thriving in an overconnected world”

Harvard University research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this.

Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smartphones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.

Are you affected? Most likely. Consider the most recent meeting or lecture you attended: did anyone have their smartphone out on the table? Think about the last time you went to the movies or went out with friends, read a book, or played a game: was your smartphone close by?

In all of these cases, merely having your smartphone present may have impaired your cognitive functioning.

Data also shows that the negative impact of smartphone presence is most pronounced for individuals who rank high on a measure capturing the strength of their connection to their phones that is, those who strongly agree with statements such as “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” and “It would be painful for me to give up my cell phone for a day.”

In a world where people continue to increasingly rely on their phones, it is only logical to expect this effect to become stronger and more universal.

We are clearly not the first to take note of the potential costs of smartphones.

Think about the number of fatalities associated with driving while talking on the phone or texting, or of texting while walking. Even hearing your phone ring while you’re busy doing something else can boost your anxiety. Knowing we have missed a text message or call leads our minds to wander, which can impair performance on tasks that require sustained attention and undermine our enjoyment.

Beyond these cognitive and health-related consequences, smartphones may impair our social functioning: having your smartphone out can distract you during social experiences and make them less enjoyable.

With all these costs in mind, however, we must consider the immense value that smartphones provide. In the course of a day, you may use your smartphone to get in touch with friends, family, and co-workers; order products online; check the weather; trade stocks; read Harvard Business Review; navigate your way to a new address, and more.

Evidently, smartphones increase our efficiency, allowing us to save time and money, connect with others, become more productive, and remain entertained.

So how do we resolve this tension between the costs and benefits of our smartphones?

Finally, Smartphones have distinct uses. There are situations in which our smartphones provide a key value, such as when they help us get in touch with someone we’re trying to meet, or when we use them to search for information that can help us make better decisions.

Those are great moments to have our phones nearby. But, rather than smartphones taking over our lives, we should take back the reins: when our smartphones aren’t directly necessary, and when being fully cognitively available is important, setting aside a period of time to put them away — in another room — can be quite valuable.

With these findings in mind, students, employees, and CEOs alike may wish to maximise their productivity by defining windows of time during which they plan to be separated from their phones, allowing them to accomplish tasks requiring deeper thought.

Moreover, asking employees not to use their phones during meetings may not be enough.

I have suggested in the past that having meetings without phones present can be more effective, boosting focus, function, and the ability to come up with creative solutions.

More broadly, we can all become more engaged and cognitively adept in our everyday lives simply by putting our smartphones (far) away, or as Leslie Perlow has already demonstrated, perhaps we all should concentrate on a balanced life of “predictable time off” (PTO) from our smartphones to increase efficiency and collaboration, heightened job satisfaction, and better work-life balance with our relationships.

As Robin S. Sharma once said:

“Cell phones, mobile e-mail, and all the other cool and slick gadgets can cause massive losses in our creative output and overall productivity.”

One Reply to “The Truth About Why Our Real Connections Are Disappearing”

  1. Geoff, your January 2019 “Are we too busy to connect to real people?” is spot on. Unfortunately we have used technology to push us further away instead of bring us closer.

    We confuse our quality time spend together (face to face) with simple whatsapp , SMS, email etc. with spending actual quality time with families. This is why people suffer from depression etc.

    Unfortunately our children will really suffer if we don’t chnage our behaviour by starting to spending quality face to face time with families, extended families, friends and people who matter.

Share your thoughts with us