The Effect of Mobile Devices on Our Collective Psyche

Paul Pender, MD published on May 3, 2019

During a recent walk at Crystal Cove, a splendid California State Park with miles of pristine coastline, I encountered two young women sitting on a bench with a magnificent view of the ocean. Yet their only view of interest was their cell phone screens. One of them lifted her head long enough to say, “Your dog is cute,” then returned to the rapture of her device. I thanked her and sat on an adjacent bench, directing my dog to the shade. I was curious about what was so significant as to capture such complete attention. Heads bowed, both young women remained motionless. Whales and dolphins swam a quarter mile offshore, and sea birds flocked in the wind currents. While I sat, I felt blessed to be experiencing the sights, sounds and scents of the ocean at low tide. The girls on the bench didn’t know what they were missing. Or did they know, and not care? Was their obsession with their devices so great that they chose not to allow their minds to come up for air?

By most accounts, I am old enough to have lived through much of the information revolution. My first exposure to television was a 10-inch black and white set my parents acquired in 1954. The screen on my iPad is bigger than that original TV set. Technology has given greater convenience and entertainment options for more people than in any other generation. The internet morphed from a Defense Department experiment to an always-on source of information, accessible to literally billions of people. However, there is a dark side to the influence of such technology, especially when it comes to social media.

An article in the Wall Street Journal featured a profile of Tristan Harris. The headline reads, “Tech’s Gadfly Reboots Warning.” The author, Betsy Morris, describes Harris as the conscience of Silicon Valley. Harris has crusaded to bring greater awareness of the addictive potential of social media and smartphones.

“As we’ve been upgrading machines, we’ve been downgrading humanity,” he says.

Harris should know: he was product designer for Google before issuing his warning about the advertising model that has driven the growth of so many internet companies. In the days before social media, ads were part of mass media, delivering messages that resonated with the target demographic. Marlboro cigarettes featured the Marlboro Man, a cowboy who exuded masculinity. “Smoke this brand and become a real man,” was the not-so-subtle message. Thanks to Facebook and other social media, companies can more carefully target users’ information collected online. A user’s satisfaction or lack thereof associated with a product or service is instantly circulated among other users or “friends.” Teenagers already lacking in confidence are more likely to feel the effects of group pressure, especially when it can be applied remotely through the device they are holding. According to Harris, “We have to go from being really, really sophisticated about technology to being really, really sophisticated about human behavior.”

Teenagers seek acceptance from their peers. Social media preys upon their insecurities. Fear of missing out drives their addiction to their devices. Features designed to attract and keep users attention have become commonplace. Becoming “part of the conversation” has allowed Twitter’s stock to increase by 16 percent in the first quarter this year. And it seems everyone has an opinion. But as one financial advisor observed, the internet has provided, for those with nothing to say, a place to say it.

The internet offers information for a price. The cost of distraction and the exclusion of life experience can be high, indeed. Our smartphones are wonderful tools, but with unlimited use, their effects on our psyche can be profound. Texting while driving has been associated with numerous fatalities, most often linked to teen use of cellphones.

What will it take to flip the switch, to allow device users to put them away and to smell the roses before they wilt? In my opinion, it will take other aspects in our lives that give us joy. The endorphin release from exercise, the perception of the beauty of nature, the pleasurable passage from a piece of good writing, and a face-to-face conversation with trusted friends all contribute to a sense of well-being. Just as our bodies require sleep, our psyches require respite from the constant barrage of online information and images. Recognizing the addictive potential of device use is the first step toward regaining control. Our minds deserve as much.