As smartphone technology has become ubiquitous, we’ve culturally evolved into an expectation of ‘always being on, always being available’ via text, social media, email or good, old-fashioned phone calls. Across projects and product categories, we see examples of the increasingly intense social pressure that people feel to stay digitally engaged.
We often hear stories of people feeling akin to a constant, low-level form of social anxiety: a feeling that can only be assuaged by checking their smartphone. They fear that they “missed” something urgent or newsworthy – may it be active social communication (like a text) or passive social communication (like a new post their friend put on Facebook). They tell us stories about worrying “what if” their boss texted and they didn’t hear the ring, or if they missed something cool that their friend posted. From our research, we have seen that this worry is entirely self-generated. Although we ask, no respondent has ever provided any example of an instance when they were shamed or someone expressed regret or frustration for their not responding quickly enough. And even after they admit that fact, they still continue feeling worried.
So what’s going on here? Why do people do this?
Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and the author of the terrific book Alone Together, observes that, “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.”
What we’ve seen is that, behaviorally, people are triggered to check their smartphones by the following (not in any particular order):
1) When they want to engage. Someone feels bored; they have some down time and want to be entertained so they check their Twitter feed, their Facebook wall or their LinkedIn updates. They’re looking for stimulus to help make the time pass. As Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, notes, “…human beings have a deep, primitive desire to know everything that’s going on around them.” This can not only drives us to check/read/download on our smartphones, but also produces a sense that it’s never enough.
2) They want a fix. People feel pleasure from the dopamine rush when they see/hear that their posts/comments/updates are being acknowledged and liked by other people. The pleasure can also come from the seeming randomness of when notifications, texts and emails are pushed to your phone that prompts us to check again and again (what psychologists call “variable ratio reinforcement”… and the same reason why slot machines are highly addictive). As the best-selling science writer and Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman writes in his new book Focus, “The chronic cognitive overload that typifies so many of our lives seems to lower our threshold for self-control. The greater the demands on our attention, it seems, the poorer we get at resisting temptations.”
3) They want relief. Given this ongoing worry of missing out, simply seeing that in fact they didn’t miss any update or email can give people peace of mind.
4) They want to disengage. This is an interesting phenomenon where in these instances, people reach for their phone as a tool to disengage with real world human interactions. This act can be a way to self-protect (perhaps in an awkward moment in a conversation), to communicate one’s importance (“I just have to take this call.”), or even be passive-aggressive (e.g. a teen who doesn’t want to talk to mom at the dinner table). Related to this is a desire for escapism, which doesn’t typically happen when someone is actively engaged in a conversation.
5) They think they’re being efficient by filling natural pauses in their lives by multitasking. In these moments, people see themselves as being “on top of it” and taking something off their plate for work or in their social lives. The problem of course is that research has been documenting for some time that multitasking in general, but particularly on mobile devices, actually produces lower quality work that often offsets any time gains from the multitasking in the first place.
Underlying all of these occasions is the tension that exists within our modern identities and social lives: Does social media help facilitate or impede our connection to the world and our emotional connection to other people? And at what cost? How can we gain emotional connection if our social media identities are often curated, edited performances?
What do you think?