The neuroscience behind digital degradation and a prescription for change
I’ve been reading a new book, and one particular chapter really struck a nerve. It’s about social media, texting, phone conversations and the default mode network, which is a fancy term for a region of our brains that manages in-person social interactions.
This portion of our brain does a lot of things, but the most important processes it manages relate to how we communicate with people in person. It’s the area that handles all kinds of things, like poker tells, persuasion and negotiation strategies.
If you have a minute, please read the bullets. If they interest you, and you have 10 minutes, check out the extended highlights below that. The story about ESPN’s paper, scissors, rock tournament is worth it just for kicks.
I find all of it deeply fascinating and so relevant to our day-to-day lives, and especially the lives of our kids and grandkids.
(By the way, my interview with Sharyl Attkisson, formerly of CBS news and now at FullMeasure.news, is here: http://fullmeasure.news/news/politics/the-curators)
Highlights from Cal Newport’s new book, Digital Minimalism:
ESPN’s rock/paper/scissors (RPS) tournament discovered that certain people with skill could win significantly more games than others.
Why? How? They develop a part of their brain (the default network or default mode network) to understand elaborate social cues. Same as poker tells. You could compare it to that.
Default network: when your brain is not engaged in beta wave concentration or tasking, it defaults to thinking about the self or people it knows. It also performs analysis of others during in-person social interactions.
This is evolution that’s hard-coded into humans and needs to be exercised. “The brain did not evolve over millions of years to spend its free time practicing something irrelevant to our lives.”
We use the default network to perform complicated social thinking. We are mind-readers by nature.
Newborns have the default network without having developed a social life, so it’s instinctual. They’re pre-wired for this ability.
Social networks, email, even phone conversations without visual communication and Skype communications where people don’t see eye to eye, can’t satisfy this need and skill development.
Loss of social connection that stimulates the default mode triggers pain (pain that can be reduced with ibuprofen, even) – some is subtle (loneliness), some dramatic (break-ups).
Modern technologies (social networks and smartphones) have messed with this, and it’s creating personal and social problems. The default network behavior can’t be replaced by highly-appealing electronic pings (e.g. the “like” button and emojis).
Digital communication tools “have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect.”
What to do? . .
Prescription: “stop leaving comments on social media posts. . . No “so cute!” or “so cool!” Remain silent . . . they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation.” (connection = digital recognition/cues; conversation = nuanced default network behaviors)
Prescription: Minimize smartphone use. You can use it for things other than socializing (for example, planning face-to-face engagements without any emotional communications). Instead, block out times for one-on-on calls or in-person socializing.
Prescription: Use a computer to “social network” at set times (if at all – better to leave Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc. altogether). If you have developed business audiences on these platforms, by all means use them for that. Think about hiring some one to do it for you, or schedule one day a week to set up posts via Buffer or Hootsuite. Set tight windows for answering questions and socializing with potential customers.
Prescription: “Don’t click “Like.” Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No “so cute!” or “so cool!” Remain silent. . . they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation.”
Prescription: Don’t ever interrupt in-person communications with a phone check.
Prescription: Always put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and encourage people to call if it’s urgent. Use email to plan in-person socializing.
FULL CHAPTER NOTES BELOW:
The Greatest Duel in Sports – From Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism
In 2007, ESPN aired what has to be one of the strangest sporting events to ever appear on the channel: the national championship of the USA Rock Paper Scissors League. The title match, which is preserved on YouTube, begins with the play-by-play announcers excitedly describing the two “RPS phenoms” (RPS being short for rock paper scissors) that will be competing, declaring with deadpan seriousness that the audience is about to witness the “greatest duel in sports.” The competition is held in a mini boxing ring with a podium in the middle. The first contestant wears glasses and is dressed in khaki pants and a short-sleeve, button-down shirt. He trips on the ropes trying to climb into the ring. His nickname, we’re told, is “Land Shark.” The second contestant, nicknamed “the Brain,” arrives, also dressed in khakis. He makes it into the ring without falling over.
“That bodes well,” the announcer helpfully explains. A referee enters and chops his hand over the podium to start the first match. Both players do a three count with their fists before throwing down their signs. The Brain chooses paper while Land Shark chooses scissors. Point to Land Shark! The crowd cheers. A little less than three minutes later, with the score in his favor, Land Shark wins the championship, and the $50,000 grand prize, by smothering the Brain’s rock with what the announcers call “the paper heard around the world.” On first encounter, the idea of serious rock paper scissors matches might sound silly. Unlike poker or chess, there doesn’t seem to be any room for strategy, which, if true, would make the outcome of a given tournament essentially random.
Except this is not what actually happens. During the peak of the league’s popularity in the early 2000s, the same high-skilled players kept ending up near the top of tournament rankings, and when accomplished players compete against novices, the role of skill becomes even more pronounced. In a promotional video produced by the national league, a tournament-caliber player who goes by the name Master Roshambollah* challenges strangers to pickup games in a Las Vegas hotel lobby. He wins almost every time. The explanation for these results is that rock paper scissors, contrary to initial assumption, requires strategy. What separates advanced players like the Brain, Land Shark, and Master Roshambollah from RPS mortals, however, is not a tediously memorized sequence of plays, or statistical wizardry, it’s instead their sophisticated grasp of a much broader topic: human psychology. A strong rock paper scissors player integrates a rich stream of information about their opponent’s body language and recent plays to help approximate their opponent’s mental state and therefore make an educated guess about the next play. These players will also use subtle movements and phrases to prime their opponent to think about a certain play. The opponent, however, might notice the priming attempt and adjust their play accordingly.
Of course, the original player might expect this, and execute a tertiary adjustment, and so on. It should come as no surprise that participants in rock paper scissors tournaments often describe the experience as exhausting. To see some of these dynamics in action, let’s return to the first throw of the 2007 championship match described above. Right before the players begin their three count, the Brain says, “Let’s roll.” This seems innocuous, but as the play-by-play announcer notes, this is a “subliminal call” for his opponent to play rock (the idea of rolling primes the mind to think about rocks). After planting this seed to nudge his opponent toward rock, the Brain plays paper. The subliminal strategy, however, backfires. Land Shark notices it and guesses what the Brain is up to, so he plays scissors, beating the Brain’s paper and winning the throw.
Understanding rock paper scissors champions is important to our purposes because their strategies highlight a foundational endowment shared by every human being on earth: the ability to perform complicated social thinking. To put this ability to use for the narrow purpose of winning an RPS throw requires some game-specific practice, but as I’ll elaborate below, most people don’t realize the extreme degree to which they perform similarly demanding feats of social navigation and mind reading throughout their normal everyday interactions. Our brains, in many ways, can be understood as sophisticated social computers. A natural conclusion of this reality is that we should treat with great care any new technology that threatens to disrupt the ways in which we connect and communicate with others. When you mess with something so central to the success of our species, it’s easy to create problems.
I’ll detail the ways in which our brains evolved to crave rich social interaction, and then explore the serious issues caused when we displace this interaction with highly appealing, but much less substantial, electronic pings.
. . . the team found that there’s a particular set of regions in the brain that consistently activate when you’re not attempting to do a cognitive task, and that just as consistently deactivate once you focus your attention on something specific.
“the default network.”
. . . something that comes on when you’re thinking about nothing.
Lieberman realized that this background hum of activity tends to focus on a small number of targets: thoughts about “other people, yourself, or both.” The default network, in other words, seems to be connected to social cognition.
once scientists knew what to look for, they discovered that the regions of the brain that defined the default network are “virtually identical” to the networks that light up during social cognition experiments. When given downtime, in other words, our brain defaults to thinking about our social life.
it’s not surprising that this is what they like to think about when bored. As Lieberman continued to study different aspects of social cognition, however, his opinion shifted. “I have since become convinced that I had the relationship between these networks backward,” he writes. “And this reversal is tremendously important.” He now believes “we are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time.” Put another way, our brains adapted to automatically practice social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world.
. . . the default network lights up during downtime even in newborns.
The importance of finding this activity in infants is that they “clearly haven’t cultivated an interest in the social world yet. . . . [The infants studied] cannot even focus their eyes.” This behavior must therefore be instinctual.
“The brain did not evolve over millions of years to spend its free time practicing something irrelevant to our lives.”
The loss of social connection, for example, turns out to trigger the same system as physical pain—explaining why the death of a family member, a breakup, or even just a social snub can cause such distress. In one simple experiment, it was discovered that over-the-counter painkillers reduced social pain.
Something as simple as a casual conversation with a store clerk requires massive amounts of neuronal computational power to take in and process a high-bandwidth stream of clues about what’s going on in the clerk’s mind. Though this “mind reading” feels natural to us, it’s actually an amazingly complicated feat performed by networks honed over millions of years of evolution. It’s exactly these highly adapted systems that are leveraged by the rock paper scissor champions who opened this chapter.
. . . humans are wired to be social. In other words, Aristotle was on the right track when he called us social animals, but it took the modern invention of advanced brain scanners to help us figure out how much he was likely understating this reality.
The intricate brain networks described above evolved over millions of years in environments where interactions were always rich, face-to-face encounters, and social groups were small and tribal. The past two decades, by contrast, are characterized by the rapid spread of digital communication tools—my name for apps, services, or sites that enable people to interact through digital networks—which have pushed people’s social networks to be much larger and much less local, while encouraging interactions through short, text-based messages and approval clicks that are orders of magnitude less information laden than what we have evolved to expect.
Perhaps predictably, this clash of old neural systems with modern innovations has caused problems. Much in the same way that the “innovation” of highly processed foods in the mid-twentieth century led to a global health crisis, the unintended side effects of digital communication tools—a sort of social fast food—are proving to be similarly worrisome.
. . . studies found strong correlations between social media use and a range of negative factors, from perceived isolation to poorer physical health. The NPR story’s title summarizes these findings well: “Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time on Social Media Might Be Why.”
. . . depending on whom you ask, social media is either making us lonely or bringing us joy.
They found that when users received “targeted” and “composed” information written by someone they know well (e.g., a comment sent by a family member), they felt better. On the other hand, receiving targeted and composed information from someone they didn’t know well, or receiving a “like,” or reading a status update broadcast to many people didn’t correlate with improved well-being.
. . . some subjects were asked to make more Facebook posts than normal, while the others were given no instructions. The experimental group who were asked to post more ended up reporting less loneliness than the control group during this week. Closer questioning revealed this was due primarily to feeling more connected to their friends on a daily basis.
. . . let’s now muddy the waters by considering the main two negative studies cited in the NPR article that came out during the same period as the Facebook post.
Primack and his team surveyed a nationally representative sample of adults between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, using the same type of random sample techniques that pollsters deploy to measure public opinion during elections. The survey asked a standard set of questions that measure the subject’s perceived social isolation (PSI)—a loneliness metric. It also asked about usage of eleven different major social media platforms. After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely. Indeed, someone in the highest quartile of social media use was three times more likely to be lonelier than someone in the lowest quartile. These results held up even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, relationship status, household income, and education. Primack admitted to NPR that he was surprised by the results: “It’s social media, so aren’t people supposed to be socially connected?” But the data was clear. The more time you spend “connecting” on these services, the more isolated you’re likely to become.
Shakya and Christakis used data from over 5,200 subjects from a nationally representative panel survey, combined with observed Facebook behavior of the subjects. They studied associations between Facebook activity and self-reported measures of physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction (among other quality of life metrics). As they report: “Our results show that overall, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with well-being.” They found, for example, that if you increase the amount of likes or links clicked by a standard deviation, mental health decreases by 5 to 8 percent of a standard deviation. These negative connections still held when, like in the Primack study, they controlled for relevant demographic variables.
These dueling studies seem to present a paradox—social media makes you feel both connected and lonely, happy and sad. To resolve this paradox, let’s start by looking closer at the experimental designs described above. The studies that found positive results focused on specific behaviors of social media users, while the studies that found negative results focused on overall use of these services. The natural assumption is that these variables would be positively connected: If common social media behaviors increase well-being, then the more you use these services, the more of these mood-boosting behaviors you’ll engage in, and the happier you should be. Therefore, after reading the positive studies, you would expect that increasing social media use would increase well-being—but this, of course, was the opposite of what the researchers discovered in the negative studies.
There must, therefore, be another factor at play—something that increases the more you use social media, generating negative impacts that swamp out the smaller positive boosts. Fortunately for our investigation, Holly Shakya identified a likely suspect for this factor: the more you use social media to interact with your network, the less time you devote to offline communication. “What we know at this point,” Shakya told NPR, “is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being.”
Shakya and Christakis also measured offline interactions and found they were associated with positive effects—a finding that has been widely replicated in the social psychology literature. As they then noted, the negative associations of Facebook use are comparable in magnitude to the positive impact of offline interaction—suggesting a trade-off.
The key issue is that using social media tends to take people away from the real-world socializing that’s massively more valuable. As the negative studies imply, the more you use social media, the less time you tend to devote to offline interaction, and therefore the worse this value deficit becomes—leaving the heaviest social media users much more likely to be lonely and miserable. The small boosts you receive from posting on a friend’s wall or liking their latest Instagram photo can’t come close to compensating for the large loss experienced by no longer spending real-world time with that same friend.
“Where we want to be cautious . . . is when the sound of a voice or a cup of coffee with a friend is replaced with ‘likes’ on a post.”
Our brains evolved during a period when the only communication was offline and face-to-face. As argued earlier in the chapter, these offline interactions are incredibly rich because they require our brains to process large amounts of information about subtle analog cues such as body language, facial expressions, and voice tone. The low-bandwidth chatter supported by many digital communication tools might offer a simulacrum of this connection, but it leaves most of our high-performance social processing networks underused—reducing these tools’ ability to satisfy our intense sociality. This is why the value generated by a Facebook comment or Instagram like—although real—is minor compared to the value generated by an analog conversation or shared real-world activity.
We don’t have good data on why people trade online for offline communication when given access to digital communication tools, but it’s easy to generate convincing hypotheses based on common experience. An obvious culprit is that online interaction is both easier and faster than old-fashioned conversation. Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long term—so we end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone, or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit.
The subtler effect is the way that digital communication tools can subvert the offline communication that remains in your life. Because our primal instinct to connect is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or bath time with a child—reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us. Our analog brain cannot easily distinguish between the importance of the person in the room with us and the person who just sent us a new text.
. . . many of these tools are engineered to hijack our social instincts to create an addictive allure. When you spend multiple hours a day compulsively clicking and swiping, there’s much less free time left for slower interactions. And because this compulsive use emits a patina of socialness, it can delude you into thinking that you’re already serving your relationships well, making further action unnecessary.
Critics have also highlighted the ability for social media to make us feel ostracized or inadequate, as well as to stoke exhausting outrage, inflame our worst tribal instincts, and perhaps even degrade the democratic process itself. For the remainder of this chapter, however, I want to bypass a discussion of the potential pathologies of the social media universe and keep our focus on the zero-sum relationship between online and offline interaction. I believe this to be the most fundamental of the issues caused by the digital communication era, and the key trap that a minimalist must understand in trying to successfully navigate the pluses and minuses of these new tools.
Up to this point in the chapter, we’ve relied on some clunky terminology to differentiate interaction mediated through text interfaces and mobile screens from the old-fashioned analog communication our species evolved to crave. Going forward, I want to borrow some useful phrasing from MIT professor Sherry Turkle, a leading researcher on the subjective experience of technology. In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle draws a distinction between connection, her word for the low-bandwidth interactions that define our online social lives, and conversation, the much richer, high-bandwidth communication that defines real-world encounters between humans. Turkle agrees with our premise that conversation is crucial: Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.
. . . she puts a human face on the decreased well-being that occurs when conversation is replaced with connection. Turkle, for example, introduces her readers to middle school students who struggle with empathy, as they lack the practice of reading facial cues that comes from conversation, as well as a thirty-four-year-old colleague who comes to realize her online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance that have led her to the point where the line between real and performed is blurring. Turning her attention to the workplace, Turkle finds young employees who retreat to email because the thought of an unstructured conversation terrifies them, and unnecessary office tensions that fester when communication shifts from nuanced conversation to ambiguous connection.
During an appearance on The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert asked Turkle a “profound” question that gets at the core of her argument: “Don’t all these little tweets, these little sips of online connection, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?”
Turkle was clear in her answer: No, they do not. As she expands: “Face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. We attend to tone and nuance.” On the other hand: “When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits.”
As a true digital minimalist, Turkle approaches these issues from a standpoint of smarter use of digital communication tools, not blanket abstention. “My argument is not anti-technology,” she writes. “It’s pro-conversation.” She’s confident that we can make the necessary changes to reclaim the conversation we need to thrive, noting that despite the “seriousness of the moment” she remains optimistic that once we recognize the issues in replacing conversation with connection, we can rethink our practices.
I share Turkle’s optimism that there’s a minimalist solution to this problem, but I’m more pessimistic about the magnitude of effort required. Toward the end of her book, Turkle offers a series of recommendations, which center in large part on the idea of making more space in your life for quality conversation. The objective of this recommendation is faultless, but its effectiveness is questionable. As argued earlier in this chapter, digital communication tools, if used without intention, have a way of forcing a trade-off between conversation and connection. If you don’t first reform your relationship with tools like social media and text messaging, attempts to shoehorn more conversation into your life are likely to fail. It can’t simply be digital business as usual augmented with more time for authentic conversation—the shift in behavior will need to be more fundamental.
. . . conversation-centric communication.
Many people think about conversation and connection as two different strategies for accomplishing the same goal of maintaining their social life. This mind-set believes that there are many different ways to tend important relationships in your life, and in our current modern moment, you should use all tools available—spanning from old-fashioned face-to-face talking, to tapping the heart icon on a friend’s Instagram post.
The philosophy of conversation-centric communication takes a harder stance. It argues that conversation is the only form of interaction that in some sense counts toward maintaining a relationship. This conversation can take the form of a face-to-face meeting, or it can be a video chat or a phone call—so long as it matches Sherry Turkle’s criteria of involving nuanced analog cues, such as the tone of your voice or facial expressions. Anything textual or non-interactive—basically, all social media, email, text, and instant messaging—doesn’t count as conversation and should instead be categorized as mere connection.
In this philosophy, connection is downgraded to a logistical role. This form of interaction now has two goals: to help set up and arrange conversation, or to efficiently transfer practical information (e.g., a meeting location or time for an upcoming event). Connection is no longer an alternative to conversation; it’s instead its supporter.
If you subscribe to conversation-centric communication, you might still maintain some social media accounts for the purposes of logistical expediency, but gone will be the habit of regularly browsing these services throughout your day, sprinkling “likes” and short comments, or posting your own updates and desperately checking for the feedback they accrue. With this in mind, there would no longer be much purpose in keeping these apps on your phone, where they will mainly serve to undermine your attempts at richer interaction. They would instead more productively reside on your computer, where they’re occasionally put to specific use.
Similarly, if you adopt conversation-centric communication, you’ll still likely rely on text-messaging services to simplify information gathering, or to coordinate social events, or to ask quick questions, but you’ll no longer participate in open-ended, ongoing text-based conversations throughout your day. The socializing that counts is real conversation, and text is no longer a sufficient alternative.
Notice, in true minimalist fashion, conversation-centric communication doesn’t ask that you abandon the wonders of digital communication tools. On the contrary, this philosophy recognizes that these tools can enable significant improvements to your social life. Among other advantages, these new technologies greatly simplify the process of arranging conversation. When you unexpectedly find yourself free on a weekend afternoon, a quick round of text messages can efficiently identify a friend available to join you for a walk. Similarly, a social media service might alert you that an old friend is going to be in town, prompting you to arrange a dinner. Innovations in digital communication also provide cheap and effective ways to banish the obstacle of distance in seeking conversation. When my sister was living in Japan, we would regularly converse over FaceTime, deciding to place a call based on the same spur-of-the-moment inspiration with which you might casually drop in on a relative living down the street. At any other period of human history, this capability would be considered miraculous. In short, this philosophy has nothing against technology—so long as the tools are put to use to improve your real-world social life as opposed to diminishing it.
If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people with whom you have an active relationship.
If you adopt this philosophy, you’ll almost certainly reduce the number of people with whom you have an active relationship. Real conversation takes time, and the total number of people for which you can uphold this standard will be significantly less than the total number of people you can follow, retweet, “like,” and occasionally leave a comment for on social media, or ping with the occasional text. Once you no longer count the latter activities as meaningful interaction, your social circle will seem at first to contract.
. . . conversation is the good stuff; it’s what we crave as humans and what provides us with the sense of community and belonging necessary to thrive. Connection, on the other hand, though appealing in the moment, provides very little of what we need.
Sherry Turkle summarizes research that found just five days at a camp with no phones or internet was enough to induce major increases in the campers’ well-being and sense of connection. It won’t take many walks with a friend, or pleasantly meandering phone calls, before you begin to wonder why you previously felt it was so important to turn away from the person sitting right in front of you to leave a comment on your cousin’s friend’s Instagram feed.
. . . the relationship between our deeply human sociality and modern digital communication tools is fraught and can produce significant issues in your life if not handled carefully. You cannot expect an app dreamed up in a dorm room, or among the Ping-Pong tables of a Silicon Valley incubator, to successfully replace the types of rich interactions to which we’ve painstakingly adapted over millennia. Our sociality is simply too complex to be outsourced to a social network or reduced to instant messages and emojis.
I’m an advocate for deploying a conversation-centric approach for this purpose, because I fear any attempt to maintain a two-tier approach to conversation—combining digital communication with old-fashioned analog conversation—will ultimately falter. That being said, others might be stronger than I am when it comes to maintaining a healthy balance between these two interactive magisterium, so I’ll resist the urge for dogmatism on this point. The key is the intention behind what you decide, not necessarily its details.
Contrary to popular lore, Facebook didn’t invent the “Like” button. That credit goes to the largely forgotten FriendFeed service, which introduced this feature in October 2007. But when the massively more popular Facebook introduced the iconic thumbs-up icon sixteen months later, the trajectory of social media was forever changed.
. . . the “Like” feature evolved to become the foundation on which Facebook rebuilt itself from a fun amusement that people occasionally checked, to a digital slot machine that began to dominate its users’ time and attention. This button introduced a rich new stream of social approval indicators that arrive in an unpredictable fashion—creating an almost impossibly appealing impulse to keep checking your account. It also provided Facebook much more detailed information on your preferences, allowing their machine-learning algorithms to digest your humanity into statistical slivers that could then be mined to push you toward targeted ads and stickier content. Not surprisingly, almost every other successful major social media platform soon followed FriendFeed and Facebook’s lead and added similar one-click approval features to their services.
To click “Like,” within the precise definitions of information theory, is literally the least informative type of nontrivial communication, providing only a minimal one bit of information about the state of the sender (the person clicking the icon on a post) to the receiver (the person who published the post). Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.
. . . start treating them as poison to your attempts to cultivate a meaningful social life. Put simply, you should stop using them. Don’t click “Like.” Ever. And while you’re at it, stop leaving comments on social media posts as well. No “so cute!” or “so cool!” Remain silent.
. . . they teach your mind that connection is a reasonable alternative to conversation. The motivating premise behind my conversation-centric communication philosophy is that once you accept this equality, despite your good intentions, the role of low-value interactions will inevitably expand until it begins to push out the high-value socializing that actually matters. If you eliminate these trivial interactions cold turkey, you send your mind a clear message: conversation is what counts—don’t be distracted from this reality by the shiny stuff on your screen. As I mentioned before, you may think you can balance both types of interaction, but most people can’t.
. . . let the concern about this reaction motivate you to invest the time required to set up a real conversation. Actually visiting the new mom will return significantly more value to both of you than adding a short “awww!” to a perfunctory scroll of comments.
Humans have maintained rich and fulfilling social lives for our entire history without needing the ability to send a few bits of information each month to people we knew briefly during high school. Nothing about your life will notably diminish when you return to this steady state. As an academic who studies and teaches social media explained to me: “I don’t think we’re meant to keep in touch with so many people.”
Phones have become woven into a fraught sense of obligation in friendship. . . . Being a friend means being “on call”—tethered to your phone, ready to be attentive, online.
Earlier in this chapter, I argued that text messaging is not sufficiently rich to fulfill our brain’s craving for real conversation. The more you text, however, the less necessary you’ll deem real conversation, and, perversely, when you do interact face-to-face, your compulsion to keep checking on other interactions on your phone will diminish the value you experience. We’re left, then, with a technology that’s required in your social life while simultaneously reducing the value you derive from it. As someone who is keenly aware of these tensions, I want to offer a compromise that respects both your obligation to be “on call” and your human craving for real conversation: consolidate texting.
. . . keep your phone in Do Not Disturb mode by default.
. . . it allows you to be more present when you’re not texting. Once you no longer treat text interactions as an ongoing conversation that you must continually tend, it’s much easier to concentrate fully on the activity before you. This will increase the value you get out of these real-world interactions. It might also provide some anxiety reduction, as our brains don’t react well to constant disruptive interaction (see the previous chapter on the importance of solitude). The second motivation for this practice is that it can upgrade the nature of your relationships. When your friends and family are able to instigate meandering pseudo-conversations with you over text at any time, it’s easy for them to become complacent about your relationship. These interactions give the appearance of close connection (even though, in reality, they’re far from this standard), providing a disincentive to invest more time in more meaningful engagement.
if you only check your text messages occasionally, this dynamic changes. They’re still able to send you questions and get back a response in a reasonable amount of time, or send you a reminder and be sure that you’ll see it. But these more asynchronous and logistical interactions no longer give off the approximate luster of true conversation. The result is that both of you will be more motivated to fill this void with better interaction, as the relationship will seem strained in the absence of back-and-forth dialogue.
. . . many people fear that their relationships will suffer if they downgrade this form of lightweight connection. I want to reassure you that it will instead strengthen the relationships you care most about. You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.
If people are used to grabbing your attention at any time, then your new absence will cause occasional consternation. But these concerns are easy to resolve. Simply tell people close to you that you check texts several times a day, so if they send you something, you’ll see it shortly, and that if they need you urgently, they can always call you (it’s here that you should configure your Do Not Disturb mode settings to let in calls from a favored list). This response calms any legitimate concerns about your availability while still freeing you from an unrelenting duty to your messages.
The problem with phones, of course, is the inconvenience of placing calls. Without being able to see the person you’re about to interrupt with a request to chat, you have no way of knowing whether or not your interaction will be well received. I still vividly remember my childhood anxiety when placing calls to friends—not knowing who from their family would pick up and how they would feel about the intrusion. With this shortcoming in mind, we should perhaps not be surprised that as soon as easier communication technologies were introduced—text messages, emails—people seemed eager to abandon this time-tested method of conversation for lower-quality connections (Sherry Turkle calls this effect “phone phobia”).