Phones at the Dinner Table

I love social media.
There, I said it.

When reflecting on all my years engaged in online social networks (circa 2005, with the development of Facebook) to 14 years up to the present having developed a small voice and community to share it with, it has afforded my life more good than harm.

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I find it fascinating that I was able to reconnect with an old friend from sixth grade, whom otherwise we would have certainly never spoken again, had I not stumbled upon her profile page. I found my 11th grade history teacher on twitter, who is now a well-known YA author, and was able to catch up in person knowing he was in the area for a book signing. I’ve seen the personal posts of some of my dearest friends who are now distributed around the world as they’ve shared their greatest triumphs- making it to the Olympics, finishing law school, becoming mothers and fathers, finding their creative passion after years of doing something differently. I’ve met some of the most genuine, likeminded people online and have been able to transition from “internet friends” to “real life friends.”

Over the years, social media has allowed me to find my voice and decide what is important to me. Through writing a blog and being present on Instagram, I’ve been able to articulate viewpoints, connect with people from around the globe, and learn far more than I expected. I’ve been afforded opportunities that wouldn’t be possible without it (even if I often say “no thank you”) and most importantly it’s been the most rewarding experience to help peers and a younger generation decide that their health and goals are achievable.

But it’s not all good.
There, I said it. 

Social media isn’t just about keeping up with the Jones’s. You also have to keep up with the Smith’s, the Fernandez’, the Miller’s, the Patel’s, etc. And I mean this in two ways: 1) the need to have and do what other people are sharing online and 2) knowing what they’re having and doing in the first place. Some of these individuals are close friends, others acquaintances, and many are mere strangers who likely have no idea you exist. You can be eating perfectly nutritious food, exercising regularly, sleeping eight hours a night, calling your grandmother daily… but if you’re frequently comparing yourself to strangers on the internet, we’ve got a problem.

A recent review paper (Oviedo-Trespalacios et al.,) has linked increased smartphone engagement with financial problems, learning impairments in educational settings, excessive sedentary behavior, and affected personal relationships. Not surprisingly the paper also noted an association between increased cellphone use and traffic accidents (specifically, the likelihood of a crash was ~3.6 times more likely as a result of handheld interactions with a mobile phone while driving.) Of note, the general consensus of psychology literature is that cell phone overuse should be referred to as “problematic smartphone use” as opposed to “smartphone addiction” due to its lack of overwhelming physical effects. I expect that as we gather more data on long term use regarding orthopedic injuries, posture, sedentary behavior, as well as traumatic accidents, this language may change.  

Certainly social media and tech use in general negatively impacts adult health when used in excess. But what I’m more concerned about is the generations immediately below mine- the ones that never lived a day of junior high without the potential for bullying, exposure, & comparison on platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram (and likely a few others that I’m not even hip enough to know about.) A review paper in Pediatrics by Hoge et al., entitled Digital Media, Anxiety, and Depression in Children explains that digital media may affect emotion-regulation, which is largely associated to anxiety and depression. This same paper sites that children currently spend an average of 6-9 hours a day using technology for leisure (so, not including homework or school activity); it is no surprise that children are spending less time with face-to-face interactions with their peers. In another great review in PLoS one by Merchant et al., the data was mixed regarding the effect of internet use with adolescent suicidal ideation and self harm. While many of the studies examined in the review noted negative consequences on overuse (i.e., online forums to learn methods for self harm or find a community with whom to participate) while others found a positive connection between use and those at risk (i.e., finding safe/appropriate outreach, thus preventing suicide.) As the “digital-native” generations are so new, research is still developing on the true long-lasting effects, but I can certainly imagine the data trajectory.

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While the research catches up to our understanding, we can take a look at ourselves, to our surroundings, and how our use of media may be providing positivity, negativity, or most likely, both. How many of us were on social media before we even ate breakfast? Can you go to the bathroom or wait in a long line without having your phone with you? What percentage have their phones out at the dinner table, missing conversation with those right in front of us so we don’t miss the crucial alert pop-up for something completely insignificant? Why do internet people in the internet bubble take precedence over those staring us in the face?

Having just avoided the digital native generation, I feel my personal reliance on tech and social media has been fairly well balanced, but only in comparison to those younger than me. I can certainly do better in terms of my usage- both quantitative and qualitative. Less time, and more value. More intentional use for meaningful interaction, less passive viewing or utilization for the mere sake of inclusivity. I’ve noticed trends in my own personal social media bubble that I don’t want to partake— involvement in “campaigns” simply to gain more likes or followers, disingenuous interaction in an attempt to climb a meaningless social ladder, overusing “vulnerability” as a means of getting attention. What a waste of energy. Of brilliant minds. Of precious moments in exchange for empty external validity.

I want more airplane mode moments. I want to experience things in their very present, and if I so desire to take a picture, it’s shared later during a time of dedicated tech use. It’s shared because I want to bring a moment or experience up for viewing with a community for whom I care about, not for the sake of dopamine hits from “likes.” I want every single word I share to be genuine, with the realization that no matter what, there are people behind other screens that may have certain positive or negative reactions to it, and that I must be conscious of this regardless.

Social media will continue to be part of our lives regardless of whether we stay fully engaged, take a permanent digital detox, or somewhere in between; the best we can do is start using it consciously. And please, can we keep our phones off the dinner table?

Sincerely,

Shanny DO