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The Phone-Checking Phenomenon

March 15, 2012

A friend of mine brought up a phenomenon that he’s witnessed frequently. You’ve probably noticed it too or maybe you even do it. You’ll see someone sitting quietly by herself pull out her smart phone. It hadn’t rung, it didn’t vibrate. There’s no ostensible reason for her to look at her phone. What drives this behavior?

The loneliness of modern life is the first and perhaps the most plausible explanation. Despite the existence of social networking sites, a quarter of Americans aged 15-24 said that they felt lonely “sometimes.” Those statistics get worse as you get older. A 2010 survey from the AARP found that over one-third of respondents (35%) described themselves as lonely. Nearly one-third of America’s population feels alone; they look for any connection they can get. Constant connectivity, symbolized by their phone, provides solace to people who feel emptiness in their lives. Whether there is a direct correlation between feelings of loneliness and compulsive phone-checking, I’m not sure.

Is this your smart phone?

Similarly, social anxieties of the type that I’ve previously described on this website, may also contribute to this behavior. Let me give an example. Yesterday, I sat next to a woman in the waiting area at a train station. At no point did this woman acknowledge my existence or the existence of any of the other people standing beneath the rain shelter. She frequently pulled out her iPhone, tapped a few things on the screen, and then put it away. She never once received a call or text (she was not texting anyone). It was as if she were scrupulously avoiding a conversation with us; this despite the fact that none of us ever once appeared interested in starting such a conversation. This and other experiences like it suggest that rather than using their smart phones for the connectivity they provide, some people may use them as crutches to avoid public conversation. They offer a way to ease social anxiety.

Perhaps this behavior results from increasing social pressure. People now work more than they ever have before, blurring the line between work life and home life. They also feel a need to stay constantly clued into social trends, news, and gossip. This combination creates a unique anxiety: feeling the need to always be doing something. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, but sitting still and thinking is not an option. We have to tweet, Facebook, blog, e-mail, work on a spreadsheet – anything other than doing “nothing.” I am not immune from these pressures either. In this new paradigm, true contemplation (solitude) is wasteful, an unproductive use of our time, and without monetary reward. Checking your smart phone has the benefit of easing your conscience. “I’m doing something important right now,” your brain tells itself.

Whatever the reason for habitual and compulsive phone-checking, it speaks to our very human need to feel connected, important, and successful. Taking out our smart phone is our way of saying: “Look at me. People like me. I have things to do. My work is more important than a conversation with you.” Rather than sneer at this kind of behavior, we have to remember that it is motivated by a deep desire to connect. Ultimately, the act is tragic; lonely and anxious, we turn to technology to connect to the world around us, only in doing so, we alienate ourselves.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012 11:18 AM

    People have described phones as drugs before, and I’d say that’s still the most accurate assessment. Checking a smart phone is like going out for a cigarette. People feel uneasy when they don’t do it for a while, and once you’re on board, it’s hard to go back without some kind of secession class.


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