If you are a student reading this, chances are you’ve had to take the city bus. One could call it a UW rite of passage. Every day, the Waterloo bus system hosts thousands of people from all walks of life, some of whom may have seemed interesting to you. I certainly have experienced this myself: if I see someone wearing Nintendo merchandise or carrying a book in their hand, I would want to start a conversation with them about our common interest. However, in the vast majority of cases, I restrain myself because I notice they have their eyes glued to their phone.
While smartphones have undoubtedly spawned numerous technological innovations over the past several years, I often find myself noticing how social behaviours have been affected by them. When I was younger, it was considered cool to have a phone, and by the time I received one on my sixteenth birthday I was ready to leap into this uncharted world and finally be accepted by my classmates. It took me less than a year to realize that the afterglow had disappeared and I was prosaic again; everyone now had a smartphone and it was a novelty if you lacked one.
We as a society have become so attached to our smartphones that some of us cannot imagine living without them. Go ahead and ask a friend if they believe they are addicted to their phone. Did they say no? A lot of us are adverse to admitting that we suffer from a smartphone addiction because we know deep down that the tether between a person and their phone is unusually tight. I was in my shared office the other day when I was startled by one of my coworkers running back into the room in a panicked state to retrieve their phone that they had left behind despite being away for only a few minutes. It is almost like a lifeline.
This unhealthy commitment to smartphones is responsible for many social behaviours suddenly shifting or becoming taboo. For instance, if you attempt to say hello to a potential new friend on the bus, you could very well end up irritating them as they crane their neck towards you and mutter an unenthusiastic “What?” The same situation can occur in the coffee line. You observe that the person in front of you is listening to one of your favourite bands but you have to shout at them to even get their attention. We become so engrossed in our digital environment that any outside stimulus is enough to warrant an unpleasant reaction, or no reaction at all. This has effectively stigmatized spontaneous conversation, which used to be a much more common practice out in public. Being lost in your phone can be dangerous too; my breath hitches when I see a student absorbedly begin crossing the street against the signal because they are fixated on their phone. A moving car can kill you. Looking up will not.
Another example can be seen during a night out with friends. You sit down at the restaurant, figure out what you are ordering, and are ready for 15 minutes of scintillating conversation. Only, everyone else at the table is scrolling through social media. I was raised with the ‘no phones at the table’ rule, so I am sometimes shocked when friends and family spend most of the meal time engaged in a virtual world rather than the real world. It is even worse when catching up with an old friend; they seem more interested in the TikTok haze than they are with the previously-conceived plans of catching up. Do you mention it to them? No, of course not. You run the risk of ruining the vibe and being a buzzkill, so you keep quiet at the expense of your satisfaction with the hangout. There really is no way to win.
The sad thing is that this phenomenon impacts adults as well, parents especially. The term ‘iPad kid’ is frequently used to describe a child who is brought up by technology rather than a mother and father. This term is so derogatory because according to UNICEF, children who are exposed to screens from as young as infancy can be subject to social and behavioural abnormalities, effectively strengthening the bonds they develop with the stimulant, and weakening the bonds that they are biologically expected to be forming with their parents. I experienced this in my extended family: several of my nieces and nephews would be handed an iPad playing Paw Patrol when their parents grew tired of entertaining them at functions. Taking breaks is healthy but it does not always have to be at the expense of children’s psychological health. Toys and puzzles can be just as fun as screens.
Children and adults alike are also plagued by the relentless pulls of social media and advertising. I am not afraid to say that I will never understand the BeReal obsession. If the whole concept behind the app is to encourage people to show off their ‘real lives,’ then they should be able to do so on their own accord and not when a notification dictates it. Further, since you are not able to view your friends’ photos until you post yours, the motivation behind being real is no longer ‘being real,’ but seeing everyone else’s photos and inevitably comparing them to yours. If you want to be real, then be real. No one is going to ask for photographic evidence.
I am not against the idea of having a smartphone. They are convenient, powerful devices that make life easier and more enjoyable for hundreds of millions of people. However, they challenge the beliefs of those who grew up before their advent, generally causing inherent opposition or confusion. I think that the best way to integrate smartphones in our lives is to treat them as an accessory rather than a complement. Now, consider this: if every smartphone disappeared tomorrow, how would your routines and those of others be affected? …Scary, right?