Phones have become an essential part of our lives. From communicating with friends and family to using social media to getting the latest news alert from CNN, these devices buzz and ding incessantly. While phones are great at making us feel part of a wider world, they are also changing the way we interact with each other and may actually be isolating rather than connecting us.
This is a worldwide problem, but on a smaller scale, it affects our day-to-day life at GDS. We’re all guilty of reaching for our phones at lunch instead of reaching out to our friends for conversations. Studies have found that the mere presence of a cell phone on the table during a discussion decreases the quality of the conversation. When people believe they will be interrupted at any minute or that the other person isn’t fully engaged in the conversation, they shy away from more meaningful or important subjects—subjects which are critical to building relationships, strengthening community and fostering empathy. School Counselor Amy Killy has noticed, first hand, the impact that smartphones have had on the community since they became mainstream. She explains that “smartphones provide such an easy outlet to… [a] quick fun thing,” and people may gravitate towards their phone rather than “engag[e] in person-to-person conversations because those can feel more awkward.” Instead of doing the more difficult work of building relationships in person, teenagers may prefer to retreat into the superficial world of their phones and use texts, emojis, snaps, or Instagram “likes” to communicate.
Dean of Student Life Bobby Asher has also noticed this decrease in connectedness—not only among students, but among adults as well. Asher was quick to assert that he doesn’t believe “tech… is evil or nefarious,” and that he passes no “judgement at all on the people who use cell phones.” That said, since technology has become more prevalent, Asher contended that “the feeling around the building has changed… [and] There is no question that [when I send] emails back and forth to people who work next door to me, it changes our level of connection.”
A decrease in face to face communication may not seem catastrophic, but it could decrease a person’s empathy, which is an essential part of our ability to enact positive change in the world through genuine connections with people and movements. In recent years, researchers have found that, among young adults, empathy levels have dropped 40 percent. While this may seem like something that is difficult to quantify, both Killy and Asher have noticed trends along these lines at GDS. Killy said that “we’re not practicing engaging in these personal emotional connections,” making it “easier for us to intellectualize empathy, but not actually practice it.” She clarified, saying that “students here are really good at intellectualizing a lot of these things—like why it is important to see something from another person’s perspective, but really treating people with dignity and seeing the humanity in people is harder if [human interactions decrease].” Asher built on Killy’s assertion, saying that he does feel “that kids are less empathetic [because] they are more inward looking than outward looking, through no fault of their own. It’s not GDS, it is the way society is moving.”
Empathy, and emotional intimacy are formed through human connections and, if we are prevented from forming these connections, we begin to feel more isolated even if we are surrounded by virtual friends, followers and the immediate gratification that comes from likes and comments. Killy cites the fact that phones provide a “lot of breadth and not a lot of depth,” to “the much greater levels of depression and anxiety” she has seen in the past few years. While the phone is obviously not the only factor, she believes that people are “getting these quick fixes, and not feeling that deep sense of connection that people need in order to feel good.”
We do have the ability to change how we interact with our phones. Both Asher and Killy cite the Peer Leadership Program trips (where phones are taken away) as examples of how students are able to come together to create the genuine human connection that seems to be lacking while on campus. We also seem to form greater connections to those on our sports teams and in other activities like theater and dance, likely due to the absence of phones during practices and rehearsals. The hours we spend with these people form bonds that often feel different, and deeper than other friendships, providing some everyday evidence of the benefits of a phone-free space. Though it seems like a paradox, we need to distance ourselves from our phones—these great connecting devices—in order to bring us closer to our friends and the people around us. Fostering empathy, especially in the current world environment, is something that needs to be a priority for all of us because, without it, we have no way of understanding and aiding in other people’s struggles. While these changes may not happen on a larger scale until more people realize the damage being done to their relationships, we can begin the work now, by reaching out in conversation to a friend in person, instead of reaching for a phone.
By Maddie Brown’19