Is technology disempowering you?

Have you become obsessively glued to your device? Do you sleep with your phone beside your bed?

Maybe you find yourself only half listening to your partner when in fact you want to check the new message which just arrived with a disruptive ping.

We already suspect that devices are making us more distracted and sedentary. But are they also impacting our abilities to build and sustain intimate relationships?

I recently listened to Vox a fascinating podcast where Ezra Klein interviewed Tristan Harris.   Harris, a former tech entrepreneur himself, became Google’s design ethicist before leaving the company to co-found the Center for Humane Technology. He discussed with Klein how social media systems are designed to distract us, to highlight negative emotions, and to provoke anxiety. Because emotions like outrage are more likely to keep us scrolling through Facebook, the algorithm caters to content that is least healthy for our well-being.

“We actually have to change the thing that we are exporting to the world, which is distraction, outrage, slot machine-style rewards, constant stimulation, social validation” Harris told Vox. He believes that “technology feels disempowering because we haven’t built it around an honest view of human nature.”

I agree, wholeheartedly, as a psychotherapist in Melbourne, time and again I see distracted, busy and overstimulated people, highly anxious and plugged in without any time for reflection, solitude and peace of mind. In fact being busy is the new norm and being alone or even bored is something of a novelty now. It is getting increasingly harder for us all to unplug.

“It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down nd be quiet for a time by yourself”

But have we gone too far? Tristan discusses what would it be like, if instead of people checking their phone 150 time per day, they took 150 long slow deep breathes per day? I love this idea. The speed and pace of life is becoming such, that as human animals our brains are having trouble keeping up, we have a finite amount of attention and we hit overwhelm when the pace of life is too fast. Yet it is becoming harder and harder to identify when we are on overdrive and then even more challenging to know how to bring ourselves back to a calm state of mind and body.

Your phone may make you physically present, but emotionally absent to your partner.

The Cut, an online New York magazine describes how we may be losing our ability to be thoughtfully reflective and empathic with our partner. That’s what  research led by Virginia Tech Psychologist Shalini Misra suggests, anyway. Misra and her colleagues found 100 pairs of people in cafés, asked them to speak about either a meaningful or meaningless subject, and then watched the conversation, noting when one conversational partner or the other handled his or her phone.

Psychologist Christian Jarrett briefly captures the findings in the British Psychological Society:

Feelings of “interconnectedness”  were reduced for pairs in which a mobile device was placed on the table or held by one of them. Similarly, “empathetic concern” was rated lower by pairs in which a mobile device was brought into view. The topic of conversation made no difference to these results, but the reduction in empathetic concern associated with the presence of a mobile device was especially pronounced for pairs of people who were in closer relationships, perhaps because their expectations about the interaction were higher.

Over at the Book of Life a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence, they suggest “the dark truth that it has become very hard to find anyone (and certainly anything) more interesting than one’s smartphone. This perplexing and troubling realisation has, for most of us, had huge consequences for our love stories, family lives, work, leisure time and health.”  They describe our relationship with our phones as “the most intense and possibly most toxic technological relationship.”

This all leads me to think about how our technologies change us and the physical context of our lives. Are we devoting the time and energy needed to build and sustain our relationships? Are we losing the capacity for being truly present with the person most important in our lives? Certainly if my anecdotal experience in sessions is true, we are all struggling to turn off our phones completely and be fully present.

How do you fix it?

I don’t want to be completely gloom and doom on this topic, technology can be positive and productive. Many people cite the “go fund me campaigns” to show how good is getting done online. But how do you manage it’s impact in a better way?

The solution to technology takeover lies in striving for balance, what is needed is greater awareness about how you are with technology AND with those most important to you.  Awareness about a problem is the first step in solving it. It’s humbling to be reminded you are a mere animal and I guess that could make you realise you are impacted significantly by these amazing machines human beings have created.  I believe it is this very awareness that is the important step in positively loosening technology’s grip.

Perhaps you can start off with small changes? Phones can be put away when you are having coffee together in a cafe? Or possibly you create a new habit at home that no phones are switched on at the dinner table?  Could this be instituted to increase the chance of interaction and connection with your partner?

Tristan Harris describes how you can reduce your dopamine rush by even turning your phone to grayscale for a day to see what an impact the lack of colours have on captivating your interest. This is a fabulous experiment and one that I personally tried and recommend, as it empowers you to have some choice over those pesky devices. Here are the instructions in the New York Times so you can try it yourself.

Hold on, I’ll try that grayscale thingo later…..I just got a email!