Most of us know that too much time on electronic devices and social media can take away from real person-to-person relationships. But is this all that it’s doing? More importantly, what is it about computer devices that demands our attention?
A Need for Connection
Human beings are social animals. Our biological need to stay connected, foster friendships, and to feel a sense of belonging all play a role in our well-being. The feeling of being connected has long been noted to improve happiness and even health. Inversely, feeling disconnected is associated with depressive moods and poor health.
While technology has introduced new ways of connecting with others, it is a poor substitute for real-life social interactions and friendships. A text or post on social media transmits information but is not as accurate with regards to emotion. Digital interactions are easily misinterpreted and may lead to false perceptions of what others think or feel. Real-life conversations, however, are harder to misinterpret and have positive effects on mood (1).
How Devices Interfere
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone that keeps staring at their phone? Chances are, you have on multiple occasions. This very common practice may be acceptable to some but is a nuisance to others, especially to those feeling ignored.
When we periodically check our phones, we give others the impression that we aren’t really listening or -even worse- that we don’t care. This can have negative effects on existing relationships and prevent making new ones. A 2012 study on the effects of mobile devices during face-to-face interaction found the very presence of mobile phones in a conversation negatively affects closeness, connection, and relationship quality (2).
Tools for Isolation
It is common to find people staring at their phones, even if surrounded by friends. Even more common is to see strangers avoid talking to each other in public, often using their phone to appear occupied. Electronic devices help isolate us despite being surrounded by others. They make it easier to avoid the same real-life interactions that bring well-being and happiness. So, why do we seek isolation?
According to a 2014 study, a reason people avoid talking to each other in social settings is likely due to predicting negative outcomes (1). Most would predict an unpleasant response when approaching a stranger that seems “busy” and see solitude as a better option. This negative prediction is often incorrect, however. The study showed that talking to strangers or being talked to- has a positive effect on mood for both parties.
Being present or “in the moment” can be a difficult task, especially when electronic devices help our minds wander. The phenomenon of mind-wandering is what neuroscience calls the Default Mode Network (DMN). Our DMN is active whenever we are not focused on the outside world but are instead thinking introspectively.
Better control of the DMN will help reduce mind-wandering, discourage the use of electronic devices, and help keep us focused on the present. This is what is meant by “mind control,” learning to control our own minds. Doing so will improve our appreciation for the “now,” our ability to focus, and to make meaningful social connections (3).
Meditation and the conscious practice of mindfulness have been shown to reduce the activity of the DMN and improve attention span and focus. The positive effects of meditation go beyond a single session, the sedating effects of meditation on the DMN are long-lasting, especially in routine meditators.
- Epley, Nicholas, and Juliana Schroeder. Mistakenly Seeking Solitude – Faculty.chicagobooth.edu. Journal of Experimental Psychology , 14 July 2014, https://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/nicholas.epley/EpleySchroederJEPG2014.pdf.
- Przybylski, Andrew K., and Netta Weinstein. “Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality – Andrew K. Przybylski, Netta Weinstein, 2013.” SAGE Journals, 2012, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0265407512453827.
- Garrison, Kathleen A, et al. “Meditation Leads to Reduced Default Mode Network Activity beyond an Active Task.” Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4529365/.