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Being Disconnected: Cellphones And Empathy

Cellphones may cause a lack of empathy.

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cellphones and computer at coffee shop

Katie_Martynova/Thinkstock

Recent research shows that frequent cellphone use impacts our communication more than we might have expected. Mobile devices can affect our level of empathy – even when we’re not using them.

When cellphones are in hand, we’re more distracted and less committed to a face-to-face conversation. This detachment may compromise our ability to understand and share the feelings of another person who’s right in front of us. According to a recent review of 72 studies by a University of Michigan team, led by psychologist Sara Konrath, empathy among college students has decreased by 40 percent over the past three decades. Most of this decrease occurred in the new millennium, when cellphones have dramatically taken over our daily lives.

The nature of human connection has evolved to adapt to the cellphone era, especially in the younger generation. According to MIT professor Sherry Turkle – the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other – growing up mobile has fostered new skills for keeping the lines of communication open. “College students tell me they know how to look someone in the eye and type on their phones at the same time, their split attention undetected,” Turkle writes in The New York Times. The problem is, split attention keeps the communication superficial. Empathy, and any deeper understanding of a person, require close attention and active listening – difficult tasks when you’re anxious about being disconnected from the rest of the universe.

Mere presence of cellphone alters depth of conversation

According to Turkle, cellphones do more than just interrupt in-depth, face-to-face dialogue. “Of course, we can find empathic conversations today, but the trend line is clear,” she says. “It’s not only that we turn away from talking face to face to chat online. It’s that we don’t allow these conversations to happen in the first place because we keep our phones in the landscape.”

Two studies conducted by Andrew Przybyleski and Netta Weinstein at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, demonstrate this phenomenon. Pairs of strangers were asked to chat one on one for ten minutes in a private booth about something interesting that happened to them during the past month. Half of the pairs were in a room where a cellphone sat on a table near them, though not in their direct line of sight. For the other participants, a notebook was on the table instead of a cellphone. When questioned afterward, the pairs with a mobile device nearby felt less of a connection with the person they spoke to and were less likely to think a friendship might develop.

The researchers theorized that seeing the device might have sparked thoughts about social networking, which then became a distraction from the face-to-face contact. This is an example of non-conscious priming, which is when perception of something taps into the memory without one being conscious of it. For example, a person primed with guilt adjectives will subsequently have more willingness to help someone than one primed with sadness adjectives.

Apparently, the presence of cellphones can compromise the connection between two people who already have a well-established relationship. Helen Lee Lin, a social psychologist, writes in Scientific American: “Cell phone usage may even reduce our social consciousness.”

As reported by Time, researchers at the University of Maryland’s Robert H Smith School of Business describe findings that echo Lin’s concern. The researchers indicate that after only a short segment of time with the cellphone, mobile users were less likely to engage in behavior helping another person or society compared with a control group – as evidenced by a greater likelihood to turn down opportunities to volunteer and their lack of effort in a game where correct answers provided money for charity.

Luckily, there are glimmers of hope for our endangered empathy. A 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center reveals 82 percent of adults surveyed feel that use of cellphones damages face-to-face conversation. This type of awareness may help kindle efforts to resist being dominated by our mobile media. Meanwhile, children are finding their dormant empathy at mobile-free camps. During wilderness outings, these disconnected kids are rediscovering their individuality and ability for self-reflection. Feeling this way makes them more open to finding a deeper connection with others – a far cry from what they can achieve via terse, rapid-fire texting.

It would serve us well to heed Turkle’s advice: “To reclaim conversation for yourself, your friendships and society, push back against viewing the world as one giant app… Conversation is the antidote to the algorithmic way of looking at life because it teaches you about fluidity, contingency and personality.”


This article was first posted on Rewire Me.


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