At The Light House Arabia, we talk a lot about technology and how it impacts our lives. The more we speak on this topic, the more I reflect on and become aware of how technology impacts my own life and relationships – both positively and negatively. Like many other expats, technology and social media have enhanced my life by creating mediums through which I can stay connected to my family and friends despite the distance between us. I video chat and message with my family, share photos, and stay updated with what is happening in my friends’ lives even when they are thousands of miles away. But technology has its downsides too. For example: I feel like I am forever having to ask my husband to put away his Blackberry; during dinner, when we are out for a walk, when we meet up with friends, when we are having lunch with his parents… At first, my reasoning was that it’s annoying. And it is, but it is also so much more than that.
Late last year, I was asked to comment on a phenomenon called ‘Phubbing’ for a newspaper. While I have felt its existence, applying a name to the phenomenon has made me more keenly aware of what it is and how it impacts our social world. ‘Phubbing’ is a contraction for ‘phone snubbing’ and refers to the action of snubbing a person during a social interaction by diverting your attention away from them and on to your phone, tablet, or other device. As I write this, I have to be very clear that I am guilty of this too. While video chatting with my family or friends I often find myself splitting my attention between the conversation and reading an online article or messaging with another friend. In the middle of conversations with friends and with my husband, there are many times when I have shifted my attention from them to my phone.
Yes, we live in a very busy and demanding age. We may need to check our phones to make sure the children are alright, to manage a work emergency, etc. But we also casually check social media sites during conversations or interrupt an interaction mid-stream to (mindlessly) react to a sound or light suddenly emitting from our device. This happens so frequently that it is taken as a given, yet it has a cumulative effect and sends a message that we may not be aware of. Is it annoying? Yes. But why is it annoying? Because it creates distance. Subtly, we close ourselves off from others and unwittingly communicate that this moment is missable.
More times than not, this is not our intention. However, in an age of ever-increasing social networks and ways to connect with people, we are actually spending less time talking to each other – and even looking at each other. This is happening with our friends, colleagues, and our family as well. Parents and children alike sit with their phones or devices at the dinner table or on the couch and family conversations are being increasingly interrupted or replaced by our compulsion to check our devices.
Growing up in an age before mobile phones and other hand held devices, I remember having little choice but to be present with the people around me. If we were walking somewhere, we made conversation and learned more about each other. If we were having dinner, we talked about our day and shared our experiences. While these situations – on the surface – appear mundane, this is how relationships are built. Yes, relationships are very much shaped by how we work through challenging situations; but the opportunities to grow together and the development of our overall sense of being seen, understood, and cared for come from how we spend all the little moments together.
In a world where every second feels like it counts, I often find myself justifying my own acts of phubbing as ‘being productive.’ Sure, I could make conversation while I walk but I could also answer that email… I could just chat with my family but I could also get other things done at the same time… The problem is that – in the process of increasing the quantity of things we get done – we are subtly undermining the quality of our relationships. Yes, I can read things online while talking to my family but did I really hear them? Did they feel listened to? Did I feel connected to them? Usually not.
I believe it is no coincidence that we are facing an ever increasing epidemic of loneliness in modern society. According to a 2010 study by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, one in ten people report feeling lonely often and one in four report worrying about feeling lonely. What can we do to combat this? Today, I video chatted with my family without opening any other computer windows or looking at my phone. Tomorrow I will strive to ask myself twice each time I reach out for my phone.