Picking up a phone may not often lead to making a phone call. It is now possible to check emails, browse social media, watch a film or listen to music with a flick of the thumb. Sometimes, our phones may communicate with us first, reminding us of events in our calendar, or, as the number and kinds of apps proliferates, they brashly enumerate the number of steps we take, drinks we imbibe or Spanish words we need to learn in any 24 hours.
If all of this sounds a bit stressful, the simple answer might be to switch off our phones. If only changing our behaviour were so simple. Words like ‘addiction’ and ‘compulsion’ are used very lightly in the context of smart phone use, but given the ubiquitous presence of smartphones in our daily routines, it might not be an overstatement to suggest that many of us do feel compelled to be in constant contact with them. One way to recognise addiction is to understand what happens when the addict is separated from the object (or substance) they crave; if detachment from a phone for any length of time produces physical discomfort, anxiety, panic and a craving to reconnect, then the chances are we are in the realm of addiction.
Rather than recommend ways to detoxify our relationship with technology, perhaps it might be more helpful to consider what our relationship with our phone tells us about how we’re feeling – about ourselves and our relationships. We are, after all, not entirely passive in our smartphone use. We set up social media accounts and build or negotiate our way through their communities: we befriend, accept or decline requests, follow, block, unfollow. We variously post or comment, or remain largely anonymous while looking on. While this does not simply mirror our ‘offline’ social behaviour or sense of self, there are continuities. For instance, think about the social media presence of a friend or acquaintance? How ‘out of character’ is their online persona? I would speculate that there are more continuities than obvious differences. How we respond to social media (to the communities which we create and which are each unique to us) could therefore be a barometer of how we are: how we’re feeling about ourselves and our relationships. It is not only teenagers who gauge their popularity – and therefore their likeability – by how much attention and approbation their posts elicit and who compare their lives and looks with their social media peers. As adults, feelings of resentment, exclusion or irritation can surface just as easily as empathy in the face of other people’s apparent success, happiness or misery.
What is new about social media and its accessibility through our phones is the pace at which we can receive these messages about other people’s selves and lives. This may indeed be producing a new sense of the self in relation to others which we don’t entirely understand. What seems continuous with other forms of social communication is the way in which social media can elicit vulnerability, shame, judgement alongside amusement, delight and surprise; feelings of connection and disconnection, support and persecution.
The constant access to others’ world views (however manufactured or authentic) from our homes, from our bedrooms, from our hands, may be a cause for concern, if our phone usage is indeed compulsive and disruptive to our lives. But the immediacy and frequency of our contact with others – albeit mediated by technology – could also be a way to develop a heightened and nuanced awareness of our emotional state. Mindfulness practice reminds us that instead of simply succumbing to our thoughts and emotional responses, it is possible to develop an observing self who notices those responses; in the noticing comes a freedom from the power of the reaction. And if this capacity is developed by virtue of a mindfulness app, why worry?