When Smartphones Hurt

Our Use of Smartphones Can Shame Others or Ourselves

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Have you ever felt disengaged from someone as they attend to their smartphone? Many people describe situations, such as in a car or restaurant, where a partner or friend is focused on a communication via their smartphone rather than the interaction between them. I’ve certainly heard parents complain that their children constantly attend to texts rather than communicate with them. Yet I have also listened to the laments of children who claim their parents interrupt conversations with them in order to check an incoming text, email, or call.

Smartphones are wonderful devices, but we neglect to consider the ways in which they can trigger shame in others. When someone doesn’t pay attention to you because they are engaged with someone else via their smartphone, such disengagement disrupts positive emotion. Broken interpersonal connections can create a jolt to the self — a letdown, a disappointment, or a frustration—that results in the activation of shame. Since shame frequently arises in the context of a bond with another, the shame response tells you that for the moment you have experienced a breech in that bond; namely, that something has messed with your anticipated feeling of enjoyment or excitement.

The advantages of having a smartphone are numerous, and yet there are ways in which we use them that can hurt, particularly when they garner your attention more than the person in front of you. Suppose you want to meet someone, but they are interacting with their smartphone. Would you be okay with interrupting their “conversation” or would you assume they are unavailable? Certainly, looking at your smartphone is a way to avoid awkward social situations, yet it might also discourage social contact.

Consider seminars or meetings where during a break there is silence, rather than conversation, as everyone immediately interacts with their smartphone rather than with each other. Remote communication, at such moments, can be more compelling than present moment engagement, as well as represent a self-protective withdrawal from interaction. Smartphone communication makes people appear socially occupied, even if they are not. In this regard, it can represent shame avoidance.

Some parents measure the social status of their children based on how little or how much their child is texting with friends, as though smartphone communication determines one’s status or level of happiness. Moreover, it is not unusual for children, as well as some adults, to believe they are outcasts because they seem to be the only person around who does not have someone to text.

Since smartphones allow us to be available at all times, the effect upon you when you contact someone but do not receive a response may be shaming. In situations with a partner, jealousy and envy—derivatives of the shame response—are easily evoked in a person who expects an immediate response to a text. Moreover, for those who are shame-prone, contact with a partner via text can represent reassurance as well as control.

Finally, sleeping with your smartphone can hurt. The device that keeps you connected to others, and perhaps comforted by them, will disrupt your sleep and will impact your health. Unfortunately, some people believe they need to sleep with their smartphone more than they think they need restful sleep. In this, and all of these situations, it is important to explore if the use of your smartphone is an attempt to avoid shame or a source of triggering it. 

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