Back when Nokia handsets were perfectly acceptable, fake phone calls were something of a trend. Those one-sided conversations signalled importance, busyness, popularity and also unavailability for overtures from friendly strangers. Today, there is no need for such theatrics. Merely staring at a smartphone screen creates a repelling force-field and real calls are aplenty in a country with more than a billion mobile phone connections.
You can almost hear the hum of activity in the air, or, at least, the guy at the next table telling someone he is “on the road” or a colleague giving hushed instructions to the nanny or a father laughing not at the antics of his toddler, but at the contents of a WhatsApp forward. Some of this activity is silent. According to a Mary Meeker report, Indians spend about four hours a day on their phones, but a lot of this time is dedicated to chat apps and consuming online entertainment rather than audio conversations. The number of Internet users in India will touch 627 million by the end of 2019, an 11 per cent increase from 2018, says a report by market research firm Kantar IMRB. Ninety-seven per cent of these users will access the Internet from their phones.
But at what cost?
Smartphones have made us more anti-social than ever. We are forever connected to distant relatives and our customised social feeds, but disconnected from the immediacies of our lives. We are more inconsiderate and less inhibited from being hurtful.
French philosopher René Descartes wrote of mind-body dualism, but we have now reached a state of mind-body dissociation. Our phones let our minds wander, our glazed eyes occasionally flitting unseeingly to our loved ones. Phone in hand, we find it nearly impossible to commit to what we are doing. A study published in the journal Environment and Behavior found that the quality of an interaction can plummet by the mere presence of a smartphone.
We give children tablets so that we can concentrate on our screens even though several studies link screen time to poor parent-offspring relationships. At work, we think of the sweet faces we ignored while texting the boss. So we video-call our children to remind ourselves of what they look like, blissfully unaware that multitasking can hamper productivity. Nothing gets done and once back home, we’re still messaging our clients or colleagues. How quickly you respond to the boss’s midnight texts is now a metric of achievement. Meanwhile, attention, absorption and mastery take a beating.
Other people, who?
Our permanent state of distraction has turned us into public menaces as well. The next time you instruct the cook to make a potato and brinjal dish from work, spare a thought for your colleagues. A University of San Diego study found that listening to one half of a phone conversation is more distracting than being privy to a two-way interaction—the brain is compelled to fill in the blanks, creating a cognitive load. Then, there is the expectation that the world will reschedule itself to sync with your calls—shopkeepers, servers and your child’s kindergarten teacher are kept on hold as you finish your oh-so-important conversation.
Little surprise then that a University of Maryland study found that cell phones make us more selfish. Being on phone fulfils our need for connectivity, leaving us disinclined to engage in prosocial behaviours like volunteering.
Our immersion in phones can also turn deadly. In 2016, 2,138 people were killed in accidents caused by drivers who were on the phone, says a transport ministry report. Gossip and rumour-mongering have always been mainstays of human communication, but chat apps have taken this to a dangerous level. There is now a Wikipedia entry for “Indian WhatsApp lynchings”, summarising incidents of violence triggered by misinformation served up on our smartphones.
Research has shown that anonymity or even just being physically removed are catalysts for the impulse for aggression. Children are particularly vulnerable. According to a survey of 28 countries by Comparitech, India recorded the highest rate of children being bullied online in 2018.
While staying connected by phone can give us a sense of belonging, research indicates that fewer face-to-face interactions are linked to mental health issues. A US study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers prefer texting to meeting their friends, but depression in this demographic is on the upswing—generational psychologist Jean Twenge has pointed to smartphone usage as a causative factor.
Not only are our relationships shallower, our worldview too is getting narrower. Our phones are our echo chambers, allowing us to see only what we want to see. Occasionally, we may venture into social media debates, but rarely does anyone come away with a broader perspective. Typed arguments from an adversary are far less convincing than those that are spoken, says a study by the universities of Berkeley and Chicago.
Because of the speed at which smartphones have ‘revolutionised’ our lives, they have caused social upheaval. They have had a deleterious impact on the quality of our communications, the reliability of the information we exchange and our mental robustness. Our smartphones have given us power, but without responsibility. Besides, who can be in a good mood if they’ve slept with an eye half-open for the flash of a notification.
Asavari Singh is an editor with a background in gender and psychology
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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 13:06:45 IST