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Your Addiction

| March 26, 2019

by Jim Bruce

… to Your Smartphone

ad·dic·tion ––  the compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance, thing, or activity.
As individuals in today’s society we have become addicted to our smartphones. We are at a loss when it isn’t in our hand, on our person, out of sight, etc. And, the research is clear, for all the value that the smart device brings it is also extremely disruptive and often not helpful.
Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and former Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and author of Presence:  Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges,1 wrote2 a few years ago that there are lots of reasons to put your smartphones down – constantly checking and then responding to them takes us out of the present moment disrupting whatever you are focusing on: for example, your conversation with a colleague, your participation in a meeting, your work on a key report, or your engagement at dinner with family or friends. 
Adding to the conversation, Sherry Turkle, The Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, believes that our incessant use of smartphones has resulted in a decline of thoughtful face-to-face interaction which has now reached epidemic proportions.  In her book Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,Turkle argues that we need meaningful conversations in all phases of our lives to help us develop self-knowledge, empathy, and intellectual skills.  And, these conversations need to be face-to-face and not via text or phone.
A few weeks ago, Shelly Berger, Senior Business Systems Analyst and Project Manager in IT Services at the St. Cloud State University sent a note to her 2017 MOR Leaders Program cohort pointing them to Simon Sinek’s YouTube video “Our Phones are Ruining Relationships.”4 In this video, Sinek makes these same points in his unique, energetic style.  (I urge you to take three minutes now to watch the video.)
This segment of Sinek’s remarks really caught my attention:  “There is a subconscious reaction to my phone while I’m holding it. I’m not checking it, it’s not buzzing, it’s not beeping. I’m not even – nothing. Do you [those in his audience] feel at this moment that you are the most important thing to me right now? No, you do not! There is a subconscious reaction you have to the device. When it’s out, it makes people around us feel that they are less important.” They know that your first attention is to your smart device and that when it signals, that is where your attention will immediately go. Whatever is happening via your device is more important.
Sinek notes that if you have your device in your hand and stop to talk with someone you need to put the device away, out of sight before the conversation begins to signal that you are giving your conversation partner your full attention. Turkle adds that the very sight of a smartphone in your line of vision changes the conversation. It decreases both the quality of the conversation and the degree of connection its participants have toward each other. And, in the process empathy is decreased.
Cuddy puts it this way: “… while many of us spend hours every day using small mobile devices to increase our productivity and efficiency, interacting with these objects, even for short periods of time, might do just the opposite, reducing our assertiveness and undermining our productivity.”  
So, given that we rely on our mobile devices far too much to give them up, what might we do to reduce the negative impacts of their use?  Our authors make several suggestions:

  1. Consider silencing – no ring, no vibrate – your smartphones and keeping them out of sight when you are in meetings, interacting with others, or are working on projects that require an uninterrupted focus. To catch up, schedule time every couple of hours for reading and responding to text and email messages.
  2. Hold more face-to-face interactions. Turkle makes a compelling case that employees perform better, students learn better, and children develop better “when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face alternatives.” Too often, without face-to-face conversations, we turn what are needed relationships into transactions.
  3. As a leader, model the behavior you want to see from your staff. For example, don’t expect “instant” responses to text messages, all phone calls to be answered immediately, or to receive responses to emails within a short window of time.
  4. Create specific times and spaces that are device free, places and times for real conversations. This is particularly important for the home and for children. Turkle suggests no phones on the table (or even visible) between you and a conversation partner, and at home no phones in the kitchen or at the meal table. Make these places reserved for real face-to-face conversations. She also notes that “Steve Jobs forbade tablets and smartphones at the dinner table and encouraged his family to talk about books and history.
  5. And, in addition, research has also demonstrated that our excessive use of hand-held devices is damaging our physical bodies with our posture of tilting our heads down, stressing our neck, to face our small screens.  New Zealand physiotherapist Steve August calls this iHunch.  And, this same research has demonstrated that potentially our iHunch posture also results in increased stress, increased negative speech, and makes us less likely to stand up for ourselves when the situation calls for it.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we have let a good thing take too much control over our lives and as a result our humanity is being damaged.  But, if we choose, we can do something about it.  I hope you choose to!
Make this a great week for you and your team. .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Amy Cuddy, Presence:  Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
  2. Amy Cuddy, Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture – and Your Mood, The New York Times, Sunday Review, Opinion, December 2015.
  3. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Books, 2015.
  4. Simon Sinek, Our Phones are Ruining Relationships, YouTube Video, January 2019.

Further Reading:

  1. Peter Dizikes,  3 Questions:  Sherry Turkle on Reclaiming Conversation,  MIT News. 
  2. Todd Essig, Reclaiming Conversation:  Sherry Turkle Launches A Movement To Take Back Talk, Forbes. 
  3. Jonathan Franzen, Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, The New York Times, Sunday Book Review. 
  4. NPR Staff, Making The Case For Face To Face In An Era Of Digital Conversation, NPR Author Interview. 

Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading for January 19, 2016.