Sonoma County Office of Education

Technology for Learners

Help Managing Smart Phone Use

Author: Rick Phelan
Published: 07.28.16

Mobile PhoneIs it OK to text message during a family meal? This is one of the questions Sherry Turkle studies looking at evolving norms for behavior with technology.  As an MIT professor, she is excited by technology but cautions that it may be taking us in places we don’t want to go. Turkle’s ideas are shared widely through a TED Talk with over 3 million views and numerous books presenting her insights: Life on the Screen, The Second Self,  Alone Together, and Reclaiming Conversation. This blog post outlines some of Turkle’s observations about mobile technology specific to American society, parenting and how we can moderate some of the negative effects of mobile technology.

Turkle recognizes the many advantages of mobile technologies. She is a proficient user who sees a range of communication options with family members, friends, business associates and the world at large. Turkle acknowledges opportunities to ‘connect’ via audio and video apps, text messaging, social media and the World Wide Web. She sees the power of mobile phone apps to entertain us, keep us informed and guide us to our destinations.

Turkle’s studies look into the deeper costs of smartphones and how they are shaping human behavior. She documents fewer real time conversations with people choosing to text or email over face-to-face communication.  Her work reveals two rationales behind this: 1) people believe ‘multitasking’ makes them more efficient; and 2) texting and emailing are preferable to conversations because electronics allow individuals to manage the self they want to be. We can edit, delete and retouch text messages, photos and videos to have us appear “just right.” She sees similar patterns in social media noting that many posts are conditioned by individuals seeking to obtain favorable views.

Turkle goes on to consider the psychological power of mobile technologies and how they change what we do and who we are. She notes obvious dangers when people interact with mobile devices when they are driving autos. Turkle goes on to document stories of parents mixing family and work time using smartphones during family meals.  Turkle observes children and adolescents being together with mobile technologies but denying each other their full attention. She calls these phenomena, “being alone together.”  

She argues that this new experience of being together, but also being elsewhere, is undermining our capacity to have conversations.  Turkle maintains that meaningful conversations in our families, classrooms, and workplaces, help us develop self-knowledge, empathy, and intellectual skills. People are losing the ‘soft skills’ of human interaction that include making eye contact, communicating with different age groups, offering greetings, asking questions, expressing a different point of view, and collaborating on a problem. Turkle documents the story of an 18 year old who uses texting for everything and shared, “…someday but certainly not now I would like to learn how to have a conversation.”

Turkle cites a Pew Foundation study that showed 89 percent of adults took out a phone during their most recent social interaction, and 82 percent saying that doing so diminished the conversation. Turkle crystallizes our dilemma saying , “... human relationships are rich, messy and demanding— technology now allows us to edit and seemingly clean things up...this is an illusion- we sacrifice conversation for connection.  We short change ourselves by not understanding this.”  

She believes we need to moderate our use of technology and be in control of devices. This is different from the current situation where technologies are seemingly in control of us. According to Turkle we need to be able to recognize the underlying social costs of using technology- loss of conversation, empathy and  presence. She encourages us to ask ourselves about the necessity of pulling out our phones and choosing to divide our attention from the here and now. According to Turkle, “...(we need to) focus on how technology can help bring us back to our real lives, our own bodies, our own communities.”

Turkle offers some places to start:

  • Establish no smartphone areas in your personal life: no phones in the kitchen, dining room, and car- recognize these spaces as sacred areas for conversation.
  • Understand that your actions with smartphones are setting the norms of what’s acceptable for children, adolescents, family members and co-workers: Will the actions you’re modeling have negative effects on empathy, communication and/or safety if others copy them?
  • Be aware of situations where smartphones are physically being put between you and others: Consider the relationship and be aware that communication is being diminished- is the presence of smartphone(s) worth the communication loss? Redefine meeting norms as appropriate.
  • When alone resist the temptation of pulling out your smartphone- recognize the value of solitude and moments to reflect.
  • Smartphones should be banned from sleeping areas- if you need an alarm, get an alarm clock; make it inconvenient to roam the Internet at night/ stay-up texting.

Additional Resources:

SCOE Digital Citizenship Resources

Bill Moyers Interviews Sherry Turkle

No Text Weekend 2017

Parent-Child Smart Phone Contract

Blog: Technology for Learners