Our Text-Filled, Tweet-Followed, Smart Phone-Addicted, Status Update-Obsessed, Facebook-Friended Lives
Illustrations by Shawn Skvarna, Icons designed by Austin Fitz
Plugged in, full battery charge, the alarm-clock function brings it to life with your choice of ear-grating noise. Pick it up, turn off the alarm, read the two texts you missed last night because you fell asleep. One reads, “OK ;-).” The other is a blurred photo of a cat, which you forward – with the caption of “Hahaha” – on to four names from your contact list because they like cats. A quick check on Twitter – three responses that say “Goodnight” to your tweet of “Time for bed #sleepy.” You tweet, “Too early #coffee.” Flip over to Facebook, catch up on the seven new stories: four are profile photo changes, two say something about the weather, the last is an image of what that one guy from high school you never really knew all that well had for dinner – looks kind of like meatloaf. You hit “Like” on them all. Status update: “I’m waking up now but am so tired. Shower time.” A brief scroll through your email before you finally get out of bed.
As an afterthought, you speak your first words of the day, which is a half-hearted good morning to your significant other who was lying beside you the entire time.
Just another average morning on a nothing-special day in our text-filled, tweet-followed, smart phone-addicted, status update-obsessed, Facebook-friended lives.
You, Me, Everyone
Everyone – your friends, family, significant others, coworkers, classmates, acquaintances, even the neighbor down the street – texts, tweets, Facebooks, Pinterests, Instagrams, Foursquares, instant messages, emails and/or uses a computer, cell phone or smart phone in some manner or form. There may even be a few MySpacers still out there somewhere. And if you don’t, you just might be considered abnormal.
Of course the above paragraph is a wildly generalized exaggeration, but there is a certain resonance of truth in it.
At this point, when someone claims to be free from social media, smart phones or computer communication, it’s kind of like saying that you don’t watch television, see movies or even ride in one of those four-wheeled, exhaust-spewing, horseless contraptions called cars. First of all, most people – unless it’s obvious that you’re a member of the Amish community – don’t really believe you if you make those claims. But, if it is true, then you’re one of the very few who have made a serious commitment to a life choice outside of the norm.
This technology is, without a doubt, pervasive and incredibly hard to ignore, let alone refrain from. In fact, it often gobbles up so much time and has become such an enormous part of our daily lives that it’s hard to remember how we ever got along without it.
“It’s hugely important in this day and age,” states Donna Talarico, who manages all of Elizabethtown College’s social media accounts as the integrated marketing manager for the school. “I can remember when I had my first job out of college, I didn’t even have a computer at my desk. Now, I can’t imagine doing a job without it.”
“It affects everything, especially how we communicate,” says Dr. Lou Manza, chair and professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College. “And communication is such a basic thing about what makes us human. The ability to communicate is what sets us apart, and I think it has radically altered it. I think the horse is out of the barn – this is just how life is going to be. I don’t see how you can go back. Are you going to take the Internet away? How do you even do that? This is how we are going to communicate, and it’s a matter now of how we manage it and use it. If you don’t want to use it, then you get left behind. I mean, even my parents use Facebook.”
“It used to vary specifically on what we did for a living,” explains Dr. Joel Kline, associate professor of digital communications at Lebanon Valley College and independent consultant in digital strategy for businesses. “If you were a knowledge worker, then it impacted your life greatly. Now, with the smart phone being such a major form of communication and with people doing a lot of social communication with Facebook and everything, the technology has now become central to a lot of people’s communication structure, whether they are a knowledge worker or not. I think that’s the biggest change I see; you can look at anybody from any socioeconomic class, any background, any job, and many of them will be tied to a type of technology as a form of communication.”
The smart phone, in particular, delivers instant access to texts, social media sites, apps, just about anything that can be found on a laptop or desktop computer. And the portability of the smart phone allows for it to be used at any time, in any circumstance and in most any area – as long as the battery lasts.
Dr. Michele Kozimor-King, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown College, points out that the pervasiveness of smart phones keeps many of its habitual users from experiencing needed moments of mental ease. “In my media class is where I became more aware of its impact on daily life,” she says. “I think we lack any real capacity to relax. I teach a first-year seminar called ‘Simple Living’ in which we went on a retreat. I had the students put their cell phones on the table, and we went on a walk for meditation. Their response was that they loved it. They liked putting the phone away. They said that if they had kept it on them, they would have been aware of it the whole time, and that the temptation would have been there to pull it out, even though they were doing a walking meditation. ...Even when we step away today from work or family or whatever, we’re still connected. I think that’s the biggest impact: our inability to disconnect.”
Dr. Marissa Harrison, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, has conducted research – along with her colleague Angela Gilmore – on the social uses of text messaging. Their findings speak to the widespread use of this technology and, as Dr. Kozimor-King stated, our inability to disconnect, even when you probably should. “We [Harrison & Gilmore, 2012] found that texting is used quite often in what I would consider to be social breeches – breaking up with someone (26 percent of our respondents did this), during a religious service (33 percent), while speaking to someone else in person (93 percent) and to talk to someone you are romantically interested in while on a date with someone else (46 percent).”
There is little disagreement as to how absolutely all-encompassing and nearly inescapable the impact of this technology has become. Dr. Dennis Weiss, professor of philosophy at York College of Pennsylvania, points out that we have a choice about whether to use the technology or not.
“One of the things that garners a lot of attention these days is the notion of ubiquitous computing, the fact that computers in one way or another are everywhere and doing many things oftentimes in ways we’re not aware. It’s pervasive in the sense that being everywhere and being linked, you kind of have access to networks of information you previously did not. A lot of times when people talk about technology, especially its impact on our sense of self, friendship or what it means to be human, they have this idea that technology is this kind of external autonomous force, which is causing us or shaping us in ways that we may be resistant to but we can’t stop. I think that’s probably a mistake. …I think it’s an interaction, a two-way street. Technology is not autonomous, this force outside of human society and human culture pushing us against our will. Nor is it inert. It’s not just some thing that sits there and does nothing until you choose to pick it up and use it. It has transformed our ways of thinking, our ways of interacting with one another, our ways of socializing, but not necessarily as a kind of external transformative agent.”
Just because it seems like this technology is everywhere and used by everybody does not necessarily mean it’s a negative, destructive force, which will most likely be the downfall of humanity as a whole. In fact, there are some pretty amazing aspects to it. After all, if it didn’t offer something positive, if it didn’t make our lives easier, there would be no reason to use it, especially not so incessantly.
“Before I started teaching my media class, I was a little on the anti-technology side,” admits Dr. Kozimor-King. “I had a skeptical view of technology, and I think that’s changed a lot with my interaction with the students and their use of it. I’m starting to understand the benefits. ...I think it’s allowed us, in some ways, to remain closer and not become more fragmented. It has increased the ability for grandparents to be more involved in their grandchildren’s lives, especially when they’re far away. It’s allowed cousins to interact from across nations. Students today are closer to their parents than when I was a child. They text and talk to their parents everyday. ...In many ways, it has increased our capacity to feel and care because we have more availability because we can keep closer in contact and, in turn, be closer to individuals.”
Dr. Manza offers another way in which the world becomes a little smaller through the use of social-media sites. “You can mass together large numbers of people,” he says. “If you look at what’s going on in certain foreign countries, these democratic movements, these people are getting together and organizing on Facebook and Twitter. And then they actually assemble, and they can affect some kind of change.”
In a lot of ways, life is also much easier because of this technology.
“I started here at this institution 20 years ago,” says Dr. Weiss, “and when I needed to do my research, I had to walk over to the library, go through card catalogues and musty, dusty tomes and volumes looking for information. Now, I’ve got a tiny laptop sitting on my desk, which gives me access to 400,000 journals, databases, web pages and blogs. Of course, that means I never leave my office, which is a problem sometimes, but it also means I have access to things I never would have had access to before. For me, that is terrific. ...I think, in many respects, there are many, many ways in which the technology is very helpful and very good.”
Think about how often you check your smart phone or Facebook or Twitter. Right now, give yourself an honest assessment on how many times a day you update your status, see if you gained a follower, access your email or fire off a text. Add it all up. What’s the number? Is it over 100? Maybe even 1,000?
An obsession is a persistent thought or idea that dominates a person’s mind. It’s a fixation, a preoccupation, perhaps even a mania. It’s something you can’t stop thinking about or doing over and over again. There’s no concrete daily number that categorizes it as an obsession. It could be 100 or maybe even 1,000. It’s really all about how the persistence of the idea, thought or action affects your life.
Most psychologists and psychiatrists would agree that washing your hands 100 times a day is an obsession. But what about checking your Facebook 100 times a day? What about sending and receiving 1,000 texts a day?
“It might not be a clinical obsession in the sense where it’s a disorder,” explains Dr. Manza. “For some people, sure, it may be. When we see something as a real clinical obsession, then it’s interfering with their life, and they can’t function because of it. If someone is in their room for 12 hours a day on Facebook, and it’s causing them not to go to work or school, then, yes, it is a clinical issue. But, in general, I think people are just compelled to do it, whether it’s to stay popular or not be out of the loop. It does have obsessive qualities because people feel like they have to check their phone or check their Facebook. But you don’t have to check those things. You can leave it alone.”
Dr. Harrison provides some interesting findings from one of her recent studies. “Some have presented evidence that people are obsessed with cell phone use and text messaging. Consider that 91 percent of college students reported texting while driving [Harrison, 2011]. Further, we recently put out a study [Harrison & Gilmore, 2012, in The Social Science Journal] where 91 percent of respondents reported texting one friend while they were hanging out with another, 85 percent of respondents reported texting while they were going to the bathroom, 30 percent reported texting while in the shower and 13 percent reported texting while they were having sex. Although we did not test for clinical obsession per se, I would say these are strong indications.”
Dr. Kozimor-King feels that it is a social norm rather than an obsession. “It’s almost like the norm of busyness,” she says. “We expect people to check their phone all the time. When I don’t check Facebook, I do feel like I’ve missed things, but I think it’s expected. For example, I have people sanctioning me for not getting on Facebook. They left me a message on Facebook, so I should have known about something. I think it’s a social norm of expectation. In order to be involved in society, you have to be part of this technology. It’s almost like you don’t have a choice other than to follow the norms of the society. I don’t know if it’s an obsession, rather than an expectation of social norms and behavior.”
Donna Talarico’s occupation is checking and updating social-media sites, but she does see a pattern in her personal life as well. She is even brave enough to fully admit that she just might be obsessed. “As somebody who does check her status on Facebook and Twitter and texting as often as I do, I would hate to say that I’m obsessed with something, but I think that it is an obsession. I do check it pretty often for my personal use, and I am trying to get better at it. When out with friends or out to dinner, I try to keep it in my pocket or in my purse because I’m starting to see that it’s interfering with personal interaction. If there’s a hole in a conversation or I’m watching TV with my husband and he goes to the bathroom, I immediately pick up my phone. I don’t want to be on the phone while we’re together doing something, but if I’m alone, I immediately reach for it just to be connected with somebody.”
Dr. Weiss describes a common scene among his students. “Much of our course work is electronic now. So, they don’t necessarily bring textbooks to class; they bring laptops and smart phones. They come into class, and they put their smart phones on their desk so they can see them. It’s almost as if they are unable to sit through a 50-minute class without looking at their phones and knowing that that security is there. But understandably so – their readings, notes, contacts, text messages and all of the other things they do are on it. When they get up from class, almost invariably, the first thing they do is open their phone, turn it on, check their messages or whatever. I think that’s pretty common for that generation. Certainly you see it when you’re out at the malls, on the streets, at the gym – everyone is in one way or another kind of tethered to their smart phones. ...Whether that implies an obsession, I think is something else altogether. I think it’s probably a way of being that is different now than it was 30 years ago.”
:-) to :-(
With so much time spent interacting and communicating electronically, has face-to-face conversation become the exception? Have real smiles been replaced by a colon, hyphen and close parenthesis; authentic frowns traded in for a colon, hyphen and open parenthesis; and the sound of laughter relegated to the uppercase letters “LOL”?
“It can limit our ability to communicate with one another in more face-to-face, non-technology ways,” says Dr. Manza. “I think you certainly see that today. I don’t think people communicate with one another the same way they used to. I’m using generalizations here, but people are used to being able to post something online quickly, say what’s on their mind and there’s no consequence. But when they get into a face-to-face conversation, they might do that same thing. If I’m talking to you, you’re here right in front of me, which means I’ve got to be careful of what I say to an extent. ...It’s easier. You don’t have to worry about emotions. You can fire off whatever messages you want. If I want to say something negative to a person, it’s hard to do that if they’re looking at you.”
Dr. Kozimor-King feels that her students still see the value of face-to-face communication. “As for my media class, I think they still do see the impact of face-to-face interaction. They use the digital technology to fill in where face-to-face interaction isn’t available. I think they use digital technology to make plans to have face-to-face interaction and as a substitute when face-to-face can’t be done. ...I do think we need to encourage more of the real interactions, though. I see the tendency to use texting language outside, shortening or abbreviating, the loss of eye contact, not realizing when you should say thank you or send thank-you notes or texts back. I do see that some of the face-to-face social skills have deteriorated somewhat.”
Dr. Kline weighs in, “As a communications person and a professor, I would say that there are a lot of subtleties involved in face-to-face communication. When we’re very young, we develop the capacity to understand those subtleties. I think people are still going to develop that capacity because, when they are a baby, they’re going to be able to determine if their parents are happy or angry. We’re still going to be able to understand body language and the things that come along with nonverbal communication. That won’t be destroyed because nobody is going to put the smart phone in your hand until you’re really old enough to read or deal with it. It’s just a matter of which the next generation is going to favor over the other. The subtleties of communication and the context are always going to have to be sent along with the message. But when two people sit down and talk, you can pretty much pick up on people’s tones and what they mean.”
The Ones and Zeroes of Friendship
At the push of a button, Facebook friends and Twitter followers can be added and deleted. You don’t need to get to know a person to become their friend on a social-media site. In fact, they don’t even have to be a real person to become your friend. You could easily become friends with Darth Vader or even one of those so called “vampires” from the Twilight books. With so much friendship being thrown around with the small exertion of clicking a mouse button, has the entire notion become cheapened? What is more valuable, 1,000 Facebook friends or one real friend?
“I would argue that technology has changed the definition of a friend,” says Dr. Kline. “But not in the way one might think. I would think that technology has changed it so that you now know who you call a friend. The word ‘friend’ doesn’t mean anything anymore in terms of Facebook. But, mentally, you know who your good friends are because they’re the ones that you can rely on for things. You also have all these people who are called friends, but you don’t have the relationships built with them to rely on them for very much. And if you think about friends, there are all kinds of studies that have been done and talk about how friendships have to go through ups and downs just like a family, just like a marriage, just like any close relationship. You never really go through that with Facebook friends. I’ve heard people say that they ‘de-friended’ a whole bunch of people because of the election or because they don’t agree on something. If you can’t disagree with someone, they’re not really a friend.”
Dr. Kozimor-King doubts the ability for people with hundreds of Facebook friends to connect in any meaningful way with that many individuals. “How can you keep up with 625 friends and know what is going on in their lives?” she asks. “How can you keep up with the feeds of so many friends? I recently had a friend post something that I thought was concerning, and yet no one reacted to that on Facebook. I wondered if anyone saw it. I saw it, so I called her. I didn’t text her, I called her. I asked her if anyone else called her about her status. She said, ‘No.’ She has over 600 friends on Facebook.”
Dr. Manza believes it to be generational. “Ask a 14-year-old, and they’ll give you an answer that might be along the line of something to do with Facebook. Ask a 40-year-old, and you would probably get a very different answer. I think, to the people who grew up with this technology, friends include that larger circle on social-media sites. As someone who did not grow up with this technology, I don’t really consider those people friends – not at all because they’re just people I see a little picture of on Facebook. They’re not friends, even though they have that label.”
He continues, “A friend used to mean someone you had a personal connection with and you spent time together. Now, a friend means that plus these strangers that you communicate with on the Internet. I think if you don’t understand the difference, then that’s a problem, and you could get an erroneous sense of yourself. ...If all of your relationships, or the majority of them, are online relationships, and you don’t break away from the computer or phone, there is a very real danger for isolation. People tend to think that they are popular if they have 1,000 friends on Facebook, but they are just computer friends. Sure, they are real people, and some of them might be actual friends you interact with, but to think you’re this popular person is delusional in a way. You have to understand that they’re not really friends. If you call them up and ask them to help you move, will they come and help you? Odds are that they won’t. But a real friend will help. Now, I don’t think just because you use social media that that will happen, but I think if you do use it to the exclusion of everything else, then it becomes a problem.”
When I Was Your Age
The Millennials, Generation Y, Generation Z, the New Silent Generation or the Net Generation – whatever you choose to call them, they are anyone in the U.S. born after 1980, and they seem to receive all of the blame for the ways in which texting and social media is used and abused. But what do they really think about this new technology? How do they use it?
Enter six real-life area teens, in no particular order, to set the record straight.
Eddie Furlan, 17, says that he sends and receives over 100 texts on a non-school day and checks on his 3,800 Twitter followers more than 500 times daily. Like many of his friends, he shuns Facebook, believing it not to be cool anymore. “Facebook is not popular to me,” he says. “They changed a lot of stuff. All of the ads pop up now. It’s really dumb and just looks stupid. Facebook is definitely for little kids and grandmothers.”
Max Salov, 18, texts about 200 times on a non-school day, makes no more than two calls a day (primarily to his parents), checks Twitter around 20 times daily and does not use Facebook for similar reasons mentioned by Furlan. He feels that life without his smart phone is one of boredom. “It’s terrible without the phone,” he says. “I have nothing to do. When I’m bored, it takes up my time. It helps me get through the day. I don’t sleep with it, but it’s within reach.”
Cameron Albert, 18, notes that he texts more than 100 times on a non-school day, connects with his more than 400 Twitter followers about 200 times a day and also rejects Facebook. He does, however, make a clear distinction between real-life friends and followers. “You’ve got your friends in real life, and then you have your followers,” he says. “A follower might know how you feel, but a friend knows why you’re feeling that way.”
Morgan Mosby, 17, lays claim to more than 1,000 texts on a non-school day, around five calls a day to family, over 500 Twitter followers and no Facebook. She also says that she checks Twitter every moment she can. She readily admits to a small obsession with her smart phone. “I think I am a little obsessed. When I don’t have my phone, I feel like I’m missing out on things. Even if I misplace my phone, I have a mini heart attack.”
Amber Hess-Moore, 18, rarely talks on the phone unless it’s an emergency, but she does send off more than 1,000 texts on a non-school day and looks in on her roughly 700 Twitter followers well over 1,000 times a day. She is also well aware of the lack of authenticity when texting. “If you’re texting,” she says, “you don’t know what their facial expressions are, but in person, you do. They might send a smiley or frown-y face, but they’re not doing that for real.”
Jessica Teter, 14, is the exception in that she prefers face-to-face, phone or video conversations over texting. She and her friends primarily use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. She feels that people are obsessed with their smart phones. “Technology has gotten to the point where people are constantly checking their phone or computer for updates,” she says. “The other day I was trying to hold a conversation with my friend on the school bus and, while I was talking, she was texting. When I was finished, she looked up and said, ‘What?’ She didn’t hear a word I said.”
The Cyber Life of the Future
It was not so long ago when cell phones came with heavy batteries secured in purse-like bags slung over your shoulder, 56k modems played a screeching tune and America Online or Prodigy chat rooms were the height of social media. The progress of technology, especially with smart phones and social media, has grown and developed at an astounding rate. So, what can we expect in the not-so-distant future?
“I think, as a whole, the Internet experience is going to be more personalized,” says Donna Talarico. “We might see less one-off social-media sites. Right now, you can tie them all together. If I take a picture on Instagram or check in somewhere on Foursquare, I can share it on Facebook and Twitter immediately. You’re already seeing everything ingrained together. Google is now showing personalized search results, which you can choose to turn off or on. I think it’s just going to be when you check your home screen on your computer or your phone, you’re going to see news that relates to you and updates about your friends. Like in Minority Report, when you walk by a store, your eyes are scanned, and something will tell you that they have those jeans you like.”
Dr. Kozimor-King says, “I think, after looking at the research on the Net Generation, there’s still going to be value in the component of face-to-face interactions. They want relationships with others. They have a very strong desire for relationships. ...While we have more and more online courses, students still appreciate the time that the faculty takes to meet with them. There’s something about that face-to-face interaction that I think is still vital. So, I think we will use technology, but we will guard it and become more aware of the harm of the technological world. As the technology becomes more of a given, we’re also going to evaluate it and critically examine the impact of that technology on our lives.”
Dr. Kline predicts more personal interactions as well as the idea that carrying around a smart phone will become obsolete. “I think that social media is going to have to connect people on a much more personal level than just sending information between profiles. In order for me to become a real friend with that person in that profile, I’m going to have to connect on a more visual and personal level. If technology has shown anything, it’s that it’s going to try to approximate our human interactions more closely.”
He continues, “Look at any smart phone. Yeah it’s sleek with all these nice features, but it’s still not that much different than the corded phone of 20 years ago. The idea that the phone in the future will be a chip in your body is not all that wacky. If all your data were in a chip, and then you just had a device that accessed it, I know a lot of teenagers that would sign up for that. They wouldn’t have to be worried about losing their phone because it would be in a chip embedded in their shoulder somewhere. They could pick up any device that can be lying all over the country and just punch in their keyword and access their information. If you see the way they are always carrying their smart phones around already, wearable technology is the next transition to that, and an embedded chip the next. This younger generation is not going to think anything of it because the procedure would hurt less than getting some weird place pierced.”
You Might Not Be Normal
Everyone does it, and if you don’t, you’re clearly not normal. If you’re not already texting, tweeting, smart-phone obsessing, updating your status or making Facebook friends, then you better start or you’re going to be left behind to wallow in your face-to-face conversations and real-life relationships.
“How do we define normal behavior?” asks Dr. Manza. “Well, that depends on the generation you ask. If the current state of affairs suggests that what is online is normal, and if the majority of people buy into it, then that’s normal. And if you’re not buying into that, then you’re not considered normal.”