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The Dark Reflection of Smartphone Screens


On paper, I should be a full-fledged Generation Z smartphone lover. I run an online business. I stay in touch with my best friends by texting and using FaceTime. I even dated a girl for five months after I got her number by direct messaging her on Twitter. (She sat next to me in homeroom for three years. We had only ever spoken once.)

Despite all this, smartphones scare me. Why? Though they expand our opportunities, they also demand less of us.

In 1993, author and essayist David Foster Wallace wrote an essay titled “E Unibus Pluram” to articulate what he felt was wrong with and addicting about television. Almost 30 years later, the objects of our addiction have evolved from large “piece[s] of furniture” (as Wallace described television sets) to sleek, portable cell phones.

According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 own a smartphone, as do 89 percent of Americans between the ages of 30 and 49. Flurry Analytics, which, according to Forbes, can track 1.2 billion smartphone users’ daily activity, published that the average U.S. smartphone user is on his or her phone for five hours a day. This usage is a problem because smartphones make two essential components of all relationships — truth telling and the devotion of full attention — more difficult.


On truth telling, electronic communication is rudimentary. I text you something. You read it and reply. I read that and reply to you. Rinse and repeat. But in between messages are long periods of paranoia, frantic backspacing, and overthinking. “He used a period. Does that mean he’s angry? How long should I wait before replying? Is this too much information?” In person, we can reassure each other with a pat on the back, subtly ask for a change in topic by shifting uncomfortably, or communicate passion with rapid speech. Most importantly, we cannot hide our genuine reactions.

In all face-to-face interactions, there is an “interactional synchrony” (a term coined by William S. Condon in a 1960 study and popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point) when people’s micromovements (occurring about every 1/45 of a second) become synced and their speech patterns align. This synchrony is crucial to human connection, and simply put, it cannot occur over text. By communicating electronically, we get to wear masks with our own faces on them, and honest cues and responses are lost in translation. We see curated versions of each other, not our true selves.

More abstractly, one lesson you learn from substantive conversations is that there are different shades of truth. The truest conversations are easier spoken than typed: The passions we have need not be filtered or retouched. To truly know a person is to look him in the eye as he describes his favorite movie, to laugh with her as she makes an offhand remark about the cold restaurant food. These moments are what truly connect us, and they cannot consistently occur through text on a screen.

Smartphones also add unnecessary competition to relationships. As a result, they have negatively reoriented our value systems. Case in point: This month, a tweet went viral and gained over 240,000 “likes” and 68,000 retweets. The tweet read: “If I’m watching Netflix on my phone and if I have to pause the movie every 2 mins for me to reply to your ass best believe you matter [sic]”

The popularity of this tweet — one that equates relationships with curated entertainment — goes to show how deeply flawed smartphone-based relationships are. Wallace wrote that television viewership “trains us to see real-life personal up-close stuff the same way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review.” Smartphones have the same effect.

Our phones are the places where conversations with friends are on the same plane as media, memes, and viral vapidity. In a society already obsessed with control and indifference, smartphones pit our friends against corporations and celebrities that make money by pulling our heart strings and distracting our minds. In the words of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, “People can’t get enough of each other if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control.” This is a losing battle for everyone.

It is easy to fall into the trap of passive relationships where people become words. We text friends in group messages for days in a row, but then we realize we haven’t seen them in a month. We forget what color their eyes are, how their laughs sound, what it feels like to hug them. When texting, it becomes easier to ask questions with one-word answers. We are connected to others, but we do not truly know them. When we lock our phones, we have no one to smile with: All we see is our own reflections.

Smartphones are not going away, so we cannot simply blame them for these problems. We must look at ourselves not as victims being acted upon but as people capable of self-reflection and care. Use phones for good. Do not be afraid to be honest. Fall in love with someone’s affect, not their words. Use your phone to stay in touch with people, but turn it off to truly know them.

Samuel H. Carter ‘22, a Crimson Business and Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.