Connections: the network of human experience. Our world is up when we make them, down when we break them. We write poems about them. We sing about them.
No other object symbolizes our desire and ability to connect in the 21st century than our phone. Future archaeologists may be puzzled by the small squares of plastic, wire and optics they find scattered around the earth, but to us they are a ubiquitous reminder of how our every moment is just one touch away from being transmitted via phone, text, email or social media to a larger network of our creation.
In a recent article in the NYTimes, Dr. Barbara Frederickson, a professor of psychology at UNC Chapel Hill, postulated that excessive use of cell phones may, ironically, reduce our ability to connect meaningfully in face-to-face interactions. Why? Sharing smiles, conversations, and emotions in-person strengthens existing neural pathways and creates new ones, allowing us to build a capacity for connection, empathy and friendship not achieved through electronic communication. Interestingly, this neuroplasticity can then alter our genetic proclivity for social connectivity amongst future generations. As adults we will create a genetic blueprint for social encounters (or lack thereof) that will shape the social connectedness of future generations. In support of this hypothesis, data indicate that the more face-to-face communication adolescent girls have with each other, the greater and more positive their social well-being. Conversely, digital forms of communication (phone, online, video) have a strong negative impact on social well-being in this emotionally vulnerable peer group. Moreover, studies show that time spent using instant messaging and social network sites does not increase the size or emotional closeness of offline (i.e., real world, non-electronic) social networks and connections.
But, all of this disturbing evidence makes me self-reflect. Like many of my peers, I am guilty of using my phone to excess at times, finding myself distracted from real-time social interactions by the endless barrage of texts, emails, tweets and status updates. However, I also consider the value of the vast social networks that my phone helps me create and maintain. Meeting someone and quickly following up with a few texts to establish a social bond can be incredibly efficacious for circumventing the often awkward and halting stages of an initial friendship. Sending and receiving photos, interesting articles, and funny texts are some of the many ways that I reconnect electronically with the more far-flung members of my social network, and I feel a great sense of well-being from these interactions that motivates my desire to follow up with a subsequent in-person connection. So is it possible, then, that cell phones, for all of their interpersonal aloofness, can also potentiate social networks and connectedness? Indeed, a 2010 study supports this hypothesis. The more in-person contact college students have with each other, the more they use their phones for texts and voice calls to augment their social networks and create additional in-person contacts, and the less lonely they are.
Therefore, I speculate that the link between social connectedness and cell phones lies not in if we use them, but how we use them. If they replace face-to-face contact, they will ultimately reshape our capacity for social connectedness to the detriment of that which nurtures and grows us emotionally and pyschologically. But, if we use them to support rather than supplant the social fabric of our existence, we may find ourselves with a far richer social network that allows future generations to communicate and interact in meaningful ways beyond the scope of our current collective imagining.
And of course, I couldn’t end without linking to a fantastic cover of the title song, the ultimate reference to communicating by phone, courtesy of my brilliant physiologist friend Melissa Bates. Share it with someone else and connect them 🙂