Colin Emerson: Smartphones Lower Attention Spans and Kill Social Skills

While the vast capabilities of smartphones are convenient, they also shorten our attentions spans, and as a result ruin the quality of face to face conversations. In other words, because children grow up having the internet at their fingertips, they become accustomed to instant gratification, and achieving what they desire instantly. While children have less patience for face to face interactions, people today still dislike the effect smartphones have on face to face conversations, as many believe them to be unnecessary and rude interruptions. Therefore, the loss of attention span takes away the patience of kids as they grow up, leading to a decreased desire to make time for face to face conversations, and decreasing the quality of face to face conversations when they come up.

When kids acquire technology at a young age, they overwhelmingly desire communication via smartphone versus communication in person. From Tim Dugdale’s review of “Distracted: the Erosion of attention and the coming dark age”, 70% of adolescents he asked said they preferred texting to talking in person, because they can text multiple people simultaneously, whereas talking to many people at a time is more difficult. This statistic alone suggests kids do not have the patience to have in person conversations, because they need to waiver from one conversation to the next. Also, according to Time magazine, 6 in every 10 parents with children under 11 years old allow them access to a tablet or smartphone. It creates an atmosphere where children are not pressured to expand their comfort zones socially, because expanding one’s comfort zone takes time and effort, something kids who have become accustomed to instant gratification do not understand. This atmosphere then establishes a trend; since most children do not have the patience to expand their comfort zones, they elect to avoid conversations with people in person. It allows them to have fewer and fewer interactions with friends and family, simply because they don’t feel like limiting themselves to one conversation at a time.

Once started at a young age, this attitude continues into young adulthood. Professor Emily Drago conducted a survey among students at Elon University regarding their smartphone usage; a prodigious amount of students reported troubling amounts of cellphone usage, and negative opinions of cellphone usage around other people. Of the students surveyed, 60% said they spend at least four hours a day on their phones. 51% of students said they speak to their friends and family more often virtually instead of personally, and 89% of them said they notice a degradation in conversation quality when one or more parties uses their phone. Even in college, a noticeable trend has surfaced: the continued abuse of smartphones rather than interact with people personally. The more puzzling factor is an overwhelming majority of students say cellphones negatively impact their conversations, yet three fifths of students still spend at least one sixth of the day using their phones. Adding this to the fact that 42% of students said they have trouble not checking their phone in class; while it does not directly say it, this statistic implies the inability to focus among kids who frequently use their phone. Considering this inability to focus, paired with the excessive usage and dwindling personal encounters, it can be inferred kids simply do not have the patience to have personal conversations with friends and family anymore. Additionally, students may be alienated from personal interaction because phone usage ruins such interactions, according to their accounts.

This impatience with personal conversations among technology abusers continues into adulthood, with even adults complaining about the negative effect of cellphone usage on personal conversations. The journal Environment and Behavior conducted a study with 200 coffee shop regulars. In the study, the coffee shop patrons were divided into pairs, and given an everyday topic (current events, sports, celebrities) to discuss for ten minutes. After the conversations each participant filled out a form reporting their regular cellphone habits and satisfaction in the conversation. In the 29/100 conversations where a cellphone was used, the conversations partners reported feeling “less empathy” toward their partners, because they seemed “bored and uninterested” in the conversation. Since adults did not grow up with smartphones, they do not yet accurately represent a population of people who have spent their entire lives accustomed to instant gratification. However, smartphones still demonstrate an ability to hinder conversation quality, as the dip in satisfaction shows the lack of interest people will return when shown a lack of interest themselves. The “boredom” discussed in the post conversation forms also implicates some adults have also managed to lose patience with simply talking to one person, although not strictly stated.

Considering the widespread growth of smartphones in recent years, it is important to note how this growth will change attitudes of those who use such devices more and more frequently. While smartphones have evidently displayed an ability to make communication more efficient, they have hindered people’s ability to communicate in person, or normally. Taking into account this correlation among people who start using these devices at young ages, it begs the question of whether or not parents should be stricter with their children about phone usage, or teach them the importance of communicating in person as well as over the phone. Either way, a major change in the way people communicate could be on the way.