The Smartphone as a Pacifier and Its Consequences

Report on a paper read at CHI 2019, conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, May 4-9, 2019

Little baby needs her rubber nipple? OK, here you go, snookums.  One researcher actually had the nerve to maintain that it might be a positive thing for an adult human being to rely on a pacifier.   I call out such an individual by name:  Shiri Melumad, who published a paper called “The Distinct Psychology of Cell Phone Usage” in 2017.  It is listed in the bibliography of the paper I am now discussing.  While Sarah Diefenbach’s and Kim Borrmann’s paper is not uniformly critical of the use of the smartphone, it does identify some rather troubling aspects of its use.  “With its handiness and multifunctionality the smartphone has become the ‘consumer’s constant companion’ and is present across all domains of life:  work, relationships, and solitude…HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] research found positive correlations between intensity of smartphone use and personality traits such as the capacity for solitude, need to belong and proneness to boredom…Such findings suggest that smartphone usage may seem more or less attractive depending on one’s personality structure [italics mine–dw].  More specifically, the smartphone may fulfill psychological needs related to particular personality traits whereby the utilization of of the smartphone for need fulfillment could also be an unconscious process.”  Diefenbach and Borrman aver that smartphone use runs under the radar for most people.  It is a “pocket slot machine” where the variable rewards structure of the smartphone leads to addiction behaviors not unlike those found in the hard-core gamblers of Las Vegas.  But all this has been established by other researchers, most notably perhaps by Natasha Dow Schüll in her chilling exposé Addiction by Design of 2012, which I have discussed in these pages.  Diefenbach and Borrmann end this section of the paper by saying that “All these findings underline the pervasive effects of the smartphone in daily life and the immense relevance of related psychological functions.”

Then there is more detailed discussion of the drawbacks of cellphone use:  that it negatively impacts academic performance, that “the mere presence of the smartphone reduces cognitive capacity, especially for those with a higher dependence on the phone…[r]egarding interpersonal relationships, Przybylski and Weinstein showed that the mere presence of the smartphone in social situations reduced the perceived interpersonal closeness, connection, and quality of the face-to-face conversation.”  It’s just heartbreaking as Diefenbach and Borrmann continue. “Another set of studies hints at contradictions between attitude and smartphone behavior.  For example, a survey by Drago found that 85% agreed [with] the statement that present technology impairs interpersonal communication.  Nevertheless, 62% were observed using either smartphones, tablets or laptops during conversations.”  Diefenbach and Borrmann report that despite warnings about the smartphone’s impact on social situations, the overall smartphone usage time continued to rise. All these conclusions are backed with solid research. The reference pages for this article contain 111 citations.  At this point the authors arrive at the main subject of the study, which is the way people use their smartphones in what the authors call “alone time”: “In order to fill this gap, the present research focuses on the specific situation of smartphone usage in moments of solitude, its determinants, and consequences…]t]his study adds to the HCI literature by exploring the consequences of smartphone usage on self-reflection and self-insight.” Its conclusions on this vitally important topic are not reassuring. In the section titled “Personality factors contributing to negative emotions during alone time”, the phenomenon of variable perception of the attractiveness of smartphone usage is explored in depth.  The focus, then is on individual differences in the experience of solitude.  According to the authors, current research demonstrates a strong correlation between positive solitude and increased psychological well-being.  Not surprisingly, the authors found that those with a a lower capacity for the positive experience of solitude relied on their smartphones more than those who have a higher capacity.  Diefenbach and Borrmann continue by citing other important parameters which determine emotional-well-being or the lack thereof, the need to belong and proneness to boredom.  They cite the literature which indicates that “digitalization in general drives our desire for continuous stimulation and stops us from exploring complex thoughts and questions that might not lead to instant rewards.”  The authors refer to a disconnect between the difficult work of self-reflection and the ease with which results are obtained via the smartphone.  “This perspective highlights that the process of self-reflection can be frustrating, which could make the instant gratifications of a mobile device appear even more tempting.”  Study results confirmed that “the empirical data thus supported the assumption that personality traits leading to negative emotions in moments of alone time are positively associated with smartphone usage in moments of alone time and vice versa…the present study found that people with less capacity for solitude, higher need to belong, and higher proneness to boredom also report more frequent smartphone usage during alone time.” The study also found meaningful distinction between self-reflection and self-insight.  Self-reflection did occur to a higher degree than expected but self-insight remained elusive. “While our research did not reveal an association between self-reflection and smartphone usage in alone time, the expected negative association between smartphone usage in alone time and self-insight was significant. One possible interpretation is that those who engage in self-reflective processes while being on the phone get less out of it.  For example, the outcomes of self-reflection while being on the phone are potentially more superficial, because of interruptions like new messages that disturb thought streams or biased self-perceptions through social media.”

It’s hard to avoid making the inference that the empirical data demonstrates that smartphone use is further eroding the capacity for self-insight, an already scarce commodity.  Those with personality structures that have a high degree of the need to belong, low capacity for the positive experience of solitude, and high inclination toward the proneness to boredom are those with the highest smartphone usage.  This arguably militates against efficacious self-examination, and this vitally important category of human experience is thus denigrated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s