by Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD. on 10/12/15
In 2010, a University of Michigan study led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000, as cell phones were becoming more and more popular. People are studying cell phone use, especially among youngsters, more and more in an attempt to look at the impact that this technology has on our day to day lives.
As much as I do use my cell phone regularly (for texts and calls, generally not email or internet), I do feel that if there is one invention of the past 50 years that we should eliminate, it's the cell phone. Yes, it's very convenient for many reasons--a quick text that you're running late eliminates the confusion or worry we used to have when meeting someone who didn't show up on time. Texting is silent and relatively inconspicuous and can be performed in a place where a call cannot be made. Cell phones can make you feel safe when driving alone or otherwise find yourself in need of a phone to call a tow truck, a family member, or even emergency services. But what was initially meant to be a tool to aid in quick communication has become an extension of who we are as people, where individuals cannot tolerate being away from their phones or letting the battery run down.
I think the change began right after the September 11th attacks. On that day cell phones became extremely valuable as passengers called loved ones to say goodbye before crashing into an open field, or reached out from the stairways of the World Trade Center (if their phones worked). At the time, I worked in a school and we were put on lock-down. We all tried desperately to reach out to loved ones we knew might have been affected by the attacks, and cell phone signals got jammed. As I recall, my carrier refunded the charges for any calls made on that day, seeing them as emergent in nature and not counting them as part of the calling package (these were the days before unlimited anything).
Prior to 9/11, most of us could not use our cell phones at work and kept them in a purse, pocket, or drawer, or even in our cars. After that day, many workers used the argument of "what if we have another 9/11 and my family can't reach me. I NEED to have my cell phone available to me." This was especially true of classroom teachers and others who didn't have easy access to a phone, but with the growth of open floor plan offices, shared conference rooms, and the like, the cell phone at your side gave a feeling of security if you thought your loved ones could reach you.
Since 2001 we have developed other technology such as texting, using the internet on the phone, sending pictures and videos, and group chats. People so expect others to be available that it is not out of the ordinary for calls or texts to come in quick succession, as if letting someone know how badly you need to reach them will make them suddenly available. There is no excuse anymore for not picking up a call or texting back immediately. No one can leave a phone at home or in the car. If you do, be prepared to come back to a barrage of texts and missed calls if someone is trying to reach you. Most of my patients bring their cell phones into session, either because they are carried in a purse or simply out of habit. I have one teen girl who often charges her phone during sessions, the buzz of her group chat distracting us from our conversation.
We are starting to look at how the way we use this technology affects our ability to feel empathy for others. Some studies have shown that when out face to face, people tend to limit their conversations to the more superficial when phones are present, such as on the dinner table or otherwise within the field of vision. The threat that a phone may go off during conversation keeps us from getting into anything too "deep" for fear of being interrupted. This is not as true when cell phones are not present. I am not sure when it became acceptable to have personal communication devices out on the dinner table, but this is more common than seeing them all put away before sitting down to enjoy time together. When someone removes himself from conversation to respond to a cell phone it makes the people he's with feel that they are not important enough for attention to be paid. For adults, we can learn how to use technology and go back to the "old fashioned" way of doing things, but for children, this is all they know. Parents texting during their soccer games or during dinner, peers communicating through cell phones and text, never the home phone where they may have to speak to a parent or sibling and ask to speak to their friends, and entire conversations conducted through text message while doing five other things. I'm curious to see what further studies reveal about how we interact with each other and how much more our ability to empathize with our peers is affected.