Erin White: Our digital dependency

Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 6:13pm

Erin White

Erin White Buy this photo
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 I have had a smartphone since I was 13 years old. And before that, I had an iPod Touch that, with the will of a Wi-Fi connection, gave me consistent access to the Internet. So for at least the last eight years, I have been the owner of some type of smart device. And while I have always considered myself a responsible person and taken care of these devices, sometimes things happen outside of your control. For example, you could hypothetically fall down the stairs with your phone in your back pocket, affecting the already-cracked screen and causing the display to give out about a week later. Hypothetically.

But regardless of the many ways I could have hypothetically broken my phone, it happened. I went to pick it up, check the time and see if any new notifications had graced my screen, but was met with an unresponsive device. I got slightly irritated. And after 40 minutes of trying different methods of getting it to turn on, my frustration turned to panic and I borrowed a friend’s phone to call my parents.

I explained the situation quickly and with the anxious breath of someone in the midst of a crisis at 12:30 a.m., my parents agreeing to figure it out in the morning. They did handle it, which I am extremely grateful for, but the process left me phoneless for two days. I was disconnected, apart from my old Dell laptop which, bless its soul, is on its last leg of life and needs to be constantly charging in order to work. And I know that two days may not seem like a long time, but try and give up your phone and Apple account for a few days to see the effects. It was just enough time to make me evaluate my technology use and the way that it has become central to the way I live.

I initially reflected on my reaction to breaking my phone in the first place. Imagine the feeling you have when you misplaced your phone for 10 minutes and are scouring the room for it, and amplify that by 10. I was filled with anxiety, as though I had just lost a hand. Phones and mobile communication have become so ingrained in and connected to us that any misplacement of the device is devastating to our day-to-day functionality and comfort. When it was taken away, I became acutely aware of this relationship.

I was quickly met with a set of challenges that I did not anticipate having. Without my phone I realized I did not have an alarm clock, affecting how I woke up for class over the next few days. I do not wear or even own a watch and have always used my phone as my personal tracker of time. For two days I only had a rough estimate of what time it was. Phones have pulled so many basic technologies together into one device, foregoing some uses that I did not even realize I frequently needed. This intensifies our tech reliance: So much of what we need and do is based on one device. Losing it is like losing what used to be 15 of your most useful objects.

I found myself on several occasions reaching for something that was not there. I would be studying and suddenly grab for the empty table to my right. Think about how many times you pick up your phone, even if you are not actively scrolling or using it. It has been reported that millennials check their phones 150 times a day. Something so habitual truly becomes essential to the way you go through your life, even when it is not necessarily beneficial to you.

Yet, in this disconnect I found that without minute breaks in my studying and working, I was more productive. My concentration was not interrupted by sending a quick message to a friend, or reading the headline that the New York Times sent to my notification center. This break in our concentration flow is proven to cause issues with productivity. However, I still missed my five-minute social media breaks. I was not Snapchatting or seeing the top new tweets on my feed. I felt like I was not expressing myself as regularly as I normally do, and I felt a distance from the people I frequently chat with. Communication has manifested itself in so many different ways in the age of social media, and a break from it felt isolating. While this cultural phenomenon of being “plugged in” all the time can have a distracting quality, it is the way that information, ideas and expression are shared in our society, so disconnecting can make us feel as if we are missing something. Managing and balancing our screen time is something that we could benefit from in practical ways, especially when tech usage manifests into insignificant scrolling and wasting time. But cutting it out completely or resisting its importance in our new communication system is an intractable mindset.  

The consistent access to and use of our phones, in combination with the fact that 77 percent of Americans now own a smartphone (95 percent owning some type of cell phone), keeps us connected to not only technology, but to each other. Mobile communication has given humanity, for the first time, instantaneous access to the people in our lives at any point. This is a new cultural phenomenon that is criticized but also indulged in by our society. While we may feel that we do not owe anyone a timely response to whatever they may need, due to the rapid nature of information that we are so accustomed to, we oftentimes expect it from others. My first phoneless day left many of my friends confused until they saw me in the evening. They were not given the typical daily updates of where I was and what I was doing. These interactions, while typically short, give us a constant access to one another that has never before existed. It also has created a certain level of anxiety about where people are and what they are doing. Without these habitual updates, loved ones can be sent into a frenzy of concern. When you do not check in, it implies that something is off or wrong. It’s crucial to maintaining interpersonal connections.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an age of mobile communication. This is reflected greatly in our use of technology and the importance that it plays in our daily lives. Phones have become an extension of us, both a useful tool for many day-to-day functions and a way to intensify interpersonal communication. But alongside the growth of constant access to one another and the use of devices, tech reliance has also developed — a new dependence that people of other generations may not be able to understand. A reliance that should be better managed in order to inspire productivity.

After my parents brought me my new phone, I asked them how they used to make and keep plans, how they handled communication without cell phones. “Erin, we just did it!” And as with all new advancements, we just keep doing it. Cell phones are just the new "it."

Erin White can be reached at ekwhite@umich.edu

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