Saturday, 25 April 2015

Antisocial media

I’m taking a break from blogging about the election (about which there is not much of interest to say at the moment anyway) to reflect on something which, whilst not new, seems to be a growing phenomenon. It’s prompted by an experience whilst waiting at a large train station in London the other day. Nearby, there was an information stand at which sat a young woman in a smart uniform. Every few minutes, a passenger would approach her with some query or other and each time she would, after a moment, look up from her mobile phone, answer the question, and then immediately go back to the phone. I watched for a while and it seemed to me that she could hardly bear to look away from her phone for even a few seconds.
I’ve also noticed – again, it’s not an original observation, but recently it seems to be one I make more frequently – how the students I teach seem to find it all but impossible to go through a class, or for that matter a few minutes, without looking at their phones. One thing that seems particularly strange about this is that students invariably complain about the lack of class contact time, especially since the introduction of tuition fees in English universities, and yet in that time that they do have they absent themselves. There’s been quite a bit of research which suggests that phone-addiction is becoming increasingly common, including studies of students.
By phone addiction, of course, we really mean addiction to the internet and social media. It’s quite an alien world to me, and I’ve posted elsewhere about my views of twitter. I’ve never had a Facebook account – let alone Pinterest or Instagram - and although I do use my phone for email and texting I regard it primarily as just a phone. I don’t much like using it as the connection and comfort never seem as good as a landline and, horror of horrors, I leave it turned off for days at a time.
That’s not, or not just, middle-aged Luddism. I do wonder what the effects of this apparent addiction are. Some are all too obvious as when people walk through busy streets, oblivious to everyone around them, glued to the phone. Indeed there are increasing numbers of accidents as a result, as in this report about Tokyo, but I guess the same would be true in any large city. It’s also obvious when you watch commuters using phones and tablets to play games. Recently, a British politician was criticised for playing the game Candy Crush during a parliamentary committee. Less obvious effects include the report this week that levels of myopia amongst children are rocketing because of the amount of time spent indoors at computers and mobile devices, and in China steps are being taken to prevent this. Or, to take another example, phone use whilst driving is an increasing cause of traffic accidents.
There seems something infantile about all this; the inability to pay more than momentary attention, the compulsive need to play. More than that, it seems as if the social media addiction in particular comes at a great cost to social interaction. In connecting us it also disconnects us from ‘real’ relationships, as many commentators have noted. It is also – connecting with the example I began with – being reported that workplace productivity is being damaged by the obsessive need to connect, with one recent survey identifying it as the main cause of timewasting at work.
I realise that this sounds puritanical, and perhaps it is – perhaps, though, there are some virtues in puritanism? And of course there are downsides to all forms of human interaction, whether virtual or real. But it does seem to me problematic that increasingly we are unable to live in the present and the here-and-now. I’ll close with another recent observation, of a couple sitting at a restaurant table each engaging not with each other but with their phones. Or perhaps not, for it came into my head that for all I knew they were actually connecting with each other via their phones in preference to talking. It seemed not just possible but ineffably sad.

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