A couple lies in bed, facing away from each other, staring at empty hands cradling invisible phones. It’s a striking image from the artist Eric Pickersgill’s project “Removed,” a series of photographs altered to remove the subjects’ devices. I discovered Pickersgill’s work while scrolling on my own phone, as disconnected from the world around me as the subjects of the photographs. These pictures made me nervous, and I suspect they went viral because they captured a common anxiety: Has our technology cut us off from more meaningful connections?
A recent study revealed that, on average, Generation Z checks their phones every three minutes. They are not alone: The average person touches, taps, swipes, or clicks their phone 2,600 times per day. Our attachment to our phones is at the center of the “distraction” critique of technology design.
According to this critique, clicks and status updates hijack our attention, and this perpetual distraction leaves us unable to focus on what truly matters. James Williams, the Google strategist-turned-University of Oxford philosopher, articulatesthis claim: “Because there’s so much competition for our attention, designers inevitably have to appeal to the lowest parts of us—they have to privilege our impulses over our intentions.”
As an anthropologist interested in the social effects of technology, I’d like to offer a provocation: Designers appeal not to what is lowest in us, but rather to what is most profound—our need to be part of a social group. Our obsessive phone-checking is driven not by our vanity but by our deepest humanity. We are not in the grips of meaningless distraction. On the contrary, we are giving our attention to a matter of critical importance: our life-and-death need to belong.
Technology does not offer a simulacrum of social belonging; rather, it creates new forms. Generation Z’s near-constant phone checking and carefully cultivated “selfie selves” are not indications of pathological distraction or petty self-involvement. Rather, Generation Z is skillfully participating in their social world. They are doing the work of belonging.
Social scientists have documented the perils of being cut off from one’s social group. We call it social death—a good indication of the stakes involved. Recently, a 17-year-old described to me being banned from all technology by doctor’s orders after having sustained a traumatic brain injury. Without access to messaging and social media, he said, he felt sentenced to “solitary confinement.” From an anthropological perspective, he was suffering a technologically mediated trauma of social isolation, a form of social death.
The psychologist Harry Harlow researched the high stakes of social belonging. Starting in 1957, he ran groundbreaking experiments, notorious for their animal cruelty, on the devastating effects of social isolation on rhesus macaques. In one set of experiments, he secluded monkeys for months at a time in sterile cages that he called “pits of despair.” The monkeys emerged from isolation psychologically devastated. They stared blankly, obsessively clutched their cloth diapers, and pulled their hair. Some monkeys refused to eat and eventually died. In Harlow’s own estimation, the experience of social isolation “almost obliterated” the animals.
Current technology design presents what amounts to a giant social experiment in belonging. When we seek “friends” and “followers,” we are involved in a deeply human, high-stakes attempt to be part of a group. Seen from this point of view, our behavior of touching our phones thousands of times a day is not about distraction, but about the anxiety of belonging.
This way of thinking about technology raises difficult questions. The “distraction” critique places the blame squarely on technology. The solution to “distraction” is straightforward, if difficult to achieve: Designers should make technology less addictive, and in the meantime we should set our phones to black and white to curb our distraction. In short, turn off your phone.
But turning off our phones often won’t work—because we don’t have a technology problem, we have a cultural problem. We are lonely and disconnected. We are obsessed with our phones because we are starving for connection. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers Americans to be suffering an epidemic of loneliness, with serious consequences for public health. The United Kingdom has appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” to tackle the problem of social isolation. A 2018 study by Cigna Health found that Generation Z reports startling levels of loneliness, the highest among any age group. These rates of loneliness do not seem to be stemming from technology use: Very heavy users of social media and those who never use social media report similarly high rates. In January of 2019, researchers from Oxford published the results of the most definitive study to date on the relationship between technology use and adolescent mental health. The results showed that, at most, only 0.4 percent of adolescent well-being is related to screen use—similar to the negative effects found for regularly eating potatoes.
The roots of our social disconnection are complex. Still, one contributing factor stands out: a culture of overwork that doesn’t leave us enough time or energy to foster our social connections. Murthy identifies a change in our culture of work as a crucial solution to loneliness: “Stop making people work so hard, or hire more people, so people can get out and build those relationships that really matter in their personal lives.”
Americans work a lot. According to the International Labor Organization, we work nearly three and a half weeks a year (137 hours) more than Japanese workers and 12 weeks a year (499 hours) more than the French. In a 2014 Gallup poll, 40 percent of full-time employees reported working more than 50 hours per week. We have less vacation and parental leave than any other industrialized country, and we often don’t use the leave that we have.
This culture of overwork starts young. High school students report feeling highly stressed by their workloads. We work a lot for many reasons—because we are struggling with student debt, because of our Uber-ized economy, and because it is part of our identity. We are, as the humblebrag hashtag puts it, #nevernotworking. But working all the time means we don’t have as much time to connect with the people we love.
The traumatized monkeys obsessively clutching their cloth diapers led Harry Harlow toward the idea of “comfort objects,” an insight that found full elaboration in Donald Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object. Special possessions like blankies and teddy bears embody parental love and allow small children to feel that love even when they are alone.
I’m not quite saying that our phones are our blankies. After all, blankies don’t have useful features like Google Maps. But our phones are special because they offer a connection to nearly everyone we love. When we touch them, we may feel reassured of this love. It makes sense that we’d feel anxious without them.
We are attached to our phones, but maybe we should be considering the question of contemporary tech use in terms of “attachment theory”—that is, in reference to our sublime human capacity to form loving relationships. Our interactions with our technology reflect a human need to belong, and our human capacity to love and be loved. The solution is not to gray-out our screens or turn off our phones; it is to develop social, economic, and political structures that address our deeper cultural issues of social disconnection and overwork, allowing us the time and energy we need for the critical task of nurturing our meaningful relationships. Without social connection, we live in sterile cages.