In a little more than a decade since the launch of the iPhone, smartphones have transformed how we interact and communicate with others at a staggering scale. No other human tool has helped us this much in terms of connecting with other humans regardless of the distance.
In the ‘50s, to send a message to another person 50 miles away from you, you would have to send a mail via post (which could take weeks) or pick up the phone (which could be expensive). In the ‘90s, there was a drastic change as you could already use a pager or a mobile phone to send and receive messages, but it was too cumbersome.
Now, we’ve already made a bit of progress. You can now choose from a wide array of apps on your smartphone to use: your email client, SMS, or other messaging apps such as Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, or WeChat. Never before in our history as a species have we had the capacity to send information almost instantaneously.
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In January, the social media management platform HootSuite and creative agency We Are Social reported that Filipinos spend an average of 10 hours, 2 minutes on the internet a day, with more than 100 million unique mobile users. The Philippines also has the highest number of social media platform users at 2.71 billion users. That for a nation with a population of 104.9 million.
There’s no question that we are hyper-connected. But how exactly is this technology shaping the way we relate with one another? American comedian and actress Charlene de Guzman dramatized how our smartphones can get in the way of connecting with others:
It’s a common 21st-century experience to have someone pull out their phone in the middle of a conversation. However, a study led by Shalini Misra, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, showed that this action significantly lowers the quality of face-to-face conversations, leaving the participants of the conversation less fulfilled and connected than when no one looks at their phone.
According to Misra’s report published in the journal Environment and Behavior, people are obsessed with building horizontal relationships, or a network of shallow relationships with people who are not in the room, with the smartphone acting as a portal. The compulsion to check one’s mobile phones, to stay connected to their horizontal network, can steal away attention from the present.
“Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies,” Misra and her team wrote. “In their presence, people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and worlds.”
The study also reported that the mere presence of a smartphone had a more negative impact on conversations among close friends, more so than in those made among strangers.
For what it’s worth, smartphones have given us an opportunity to cultivate long-distance relationships and enhanced the way we communicate with one another. Nevertheless, it remains to see if this tool that we have created will help us create more meaningful relationships or distract from them.