There is a brief lapse in our dinner table conversation, no more than a second, maybe two. In that moment, all five of us have taken out our phones and are perusing various social media; we might as well be sitting and eating our dinners alone. This unconscious shift from conversation to social networking is startling in its automaticity and jarring when I mentally retreat to consider this unquestioned part of our lives. Was I unhappy before I could access the Internet anywhere, even in a remote valley surrounded by purple mountains?
As a culture, we have developed an incessant need to remain attached to our technology, so much so that when I survey the tables nearest me in the dining hall, the majority of people have their phones by their plates, ready to be checked at a moment’s notice. I think stand-up comedian Louis CK put it well when, in an interview, he described how he always reaches for his phone when driving to escape being alone with his deepest, most depressing thoughts. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with seeking connections with other people through our phones to escape loneliness. After all, we are nothing if not social beings, and social media can connect us to people with whom we might not otherwise be able to speak to in person. But a darker side exists to smartphone use and social networking that has consequences of which we are not always aware.
Constant phone usage has the obvious consequence of removing us from human interaction. When we are texting, we are not talking, and if we are attempting both we clearly aren’t giving the conversation in question our full attention. But I think an equally large problem caused by our addiction to smartphones is the insidious message we send when we leave our phone on the dinner table. This message is that we do not value the presence of those with whom we sit. We give the appearance that we would rather communicate with people in places other than at our table, even if this couldn’t be further from the truth. And once we check our phone, the domino effect occurs. Everyone else at the table does as well, and before long, interesting people perfectly capable of maintaining interesting human discussion and interaction stare downwards at their LED screens, “social networking.”
The ironic part of the situation is that I would say most people sitting at a table engrossed in their phones would prefer to be interacting face-to-face. We use our phones as a safety net, which CK describes when he explains how we use smartphones to save ourselves from time alone with our thoughts. But this safety net gets overused. We are too trigger-happy. When we hear a lapse in conversation, we immediately reach for our phones. A culture of instant gratification removes the requirement that we sit bored at our table when YouTube or Yik Yak can easily entertain. We use our phones in the large moments of silence, and then smaller ones, until eventually we realize that we might as well be sitting alone in our dorm rooms rather than with our friends.
In my life, my smartphone and I have developed a relationship akin to a drug addiction, and my levels of self-esteem directly correspond with my fiddling. Whenever someone “likes” one of my pictures, sends me a friend request or comments on my Facebook wall, I feel a little bit of happiness; studies have actually shown that when we get “likes” our brains release dopamine. Thus, we become addicted to the sensation and spend more of our time online, all in the hopes of getting more likes.
One of the best parts of being a Williams student for me has been meeting other students. Everyone has a unique story to tell and a valuable perspective to add (as we’ve learned with recent campus debates). I sometimes wonder how many interesting stories I’ve missed because I’ve been on my phone, and how many interesting people I haven’t spoken to. In fact, a viral video has been circulating recently emphasizing what we miss when we use our phones. I don’t know how much I’ve missed, but I do know I don’t want to miss any more. When I look back at my time at Williams, I want to remember the people – not my iPhone screen.
Will Sager ’17 is from Morristown, N.J. He lives in Mills-Dennett.