The Happiest iPhone on the Block: Why Managing Your Digital Life is Like Good Parenting

When I started blogging a little over a year ago, I was a true social media skeptic. I drew more inspiration from thinkers like Sherry Turkle than Anil Dash. But my experiences with social media have turned this on its head. I’m still a skeptic in the sense that, as a scientist, I believe we need to know a lot more about how social media affect our lives for better and for worse. But I don’t feel the kind of concern I used to feel. Perhaps I’ve been tempted by the siren song of technology, lulled by a false sense of security engendered by the all-consuming digital embrace… but I don’t think so. I actually feel more in control and less overwhelmed by social media and other digital forms of communication than ever before. I feel they are tools, which I can selectively choose among and harness. I believe that a sense of well-being and balance in social media use is possible if we use some simple practices. The best metaphor I can think of for these practices is that they are the types of things that an effective and sensitive parent does. Here are the top five “parenting strategies” I’ve used to manage my social media burden:

naughty child

  1. Establish rules and set limits. Children thrive when there are consistent limits and structure. In the same way, our technology use needs rules and limits. If I don’t set limits on when and how I use social media, I’m more likely to get sucked into the black hole of keeping up with every tweet/text/email/post/newsfeed. I’m more easily distracted by social media, less present with others, and more likely to waste time and be less efficient because of it. Like all good parents, I try to create structure that is firm but fair. Harsh discipline might work in the short term, but the child usually rebels. So, I try not to be unreasonable or unrealistic about the rules (e.g., “I can only check email once a day, and for no more than 10 minutes” doesn’t work). I’ve tried to find a set of guidelines that work with my life and make me happy.
  2. Monitor communication technology use. It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know how much social media you’ve used today? This is really about being mindful about how we’re using our technology. I prioritize my time – I only have so much time and attention in a day, and so I try to spend my mental and social capital wisely. I keep track and schedule times that I will use these tools, and know the times that they need to be put to bed.
  3. Reinforce good behavior. It’s not only the amount of time we use social media or communication technology. It’s about how we use it and what it brings to our lives. I try to select digital communities that brings something positive to my life and that cultivates a positive peer network.
  4. Selectively ignore. In parenting, the idea here is that if a child is showing a troublesome behavior, as long as it’s not destructive, it can be “extinguished” by just ignoring it. If there is no reaction, and no reward, there ceases to be a reason for the child to act that way. And then the child stops being a nuisance. In the similar vein, when I start to feel that my communication technology use is becoming burdensome and bossy, when I feel the pressure to respond to every message or push notification is too much, I start ignoring it. Most of us like the feeling of being connected, and hope that the dings and rings on our devices will bring something good into our lives or that stressful things can be averted and dealt with quickly. So, we start to check obsessively and end up spending dinner time with our family on a device, or walking into traffic with our eyes glued to our iPhone. When I begin to move in this direction, I reverse course and start to consciously and selectively ignore my devices in order to break the cycle.
  5. Adapt technology use to fit my life. One key to being a good parent, I believe, is structuring your life so that it can accommodate children in support of their well-being and happiness. Some (in my opinion) not-so-great parents do the opposite, they expect not to change their lives at all and that children should just fit in. In contrast to my list of strategies thus far, when it comes to mobile technology and social media I try to follow the inspiration of the questionable parent: I fit technology into my life so that I remain able to do what I want and need to do without being sidetracked. If my life is becoming  more stressful and less organized because of social media burden, then I’m probably doing the opposite.

So remember, when that naughty stream of Facebook status updates are just too much to handle, you’re a week behind on your twitter feed, the pesky email inbox just won’t empty out, and those 10 texts – that are going to go unanswered for another few days – won’t stop bugging you, ask yourself: what would mom do?

Social Media: “A Flight from Conversation”?

I’ve started a research project on the impact of social media on our social and emotional lives. When I first began, I carefully considered Sherry Turkle’s work. For the past 15 years, she has written passionately about our evolving relationship with technology. Most recently (see her TED talk), she argues that the way we are using technology, in particular social media, has created “disturbing new habits” that have the potential to make us feel more alone rather than more connected. In other words, we are getting used to being alone, together – being with each other, but elsewhere at the same time. If you’ve ever sat at a table or in a room where everyone was busy on their devices rather than talking with each other, you know what she’s getting at.

I think Sherry Turkle has a lot of important things to say. But she is a divisive character. She does not mince words about what she thinks the implications of our technology habits are in terms of our psychological well-being – more alienation, more aloneness, loss of a capacity for solitude, and stunted development of some of the most basic of social skills, like having a conversation.  What is easy to forget, however, is that she also argues that these are habits that we can all change – if we choose to take a look at how our devices not only change what we do but change who we are.

It’s also important to remember that her research is entirely qualitative and anecdotal. Lab-based and quantitative research remains to be done to test her hypotheses. Below, I list a few ideas that she highlights, along with my ideas about how her hypotheses could actually be tested by empirical, lab-based research. For the record, these issues are not exactly what I am studying now, but stay tuned for blog posts that give you my results hot off the data presses.

1. Social media is a flight from conversation. This is the notion that the more we text, post, and email, the less we actually take time to talk with people. An important issue here is that having a conversation is a skill – one that we learn through practice.  So, where does that leave the kids today, who are trying to gain these skills? Are they going to be a bunch of Neanderthals communicating in non-grammatical text-ese? Probably not – that’s the future dystopia vision – but how will the Millenials learn to communicate?

One way to test this is to actually track teens over time, during periods that are critical for building conversational skills (early adolescence maybe). Then, analyze how differences in the frequency and types of social media use correspond over time with conversational skills and abilities (measured via existing IQ tests that tap verbal comprehension and production or measured via some newly developed measure). The longitudinal component is very important here because if you are looking at social media use and conversation skills at the same time, you can’t draw causal conclusions (i.e., it could just be that those with fewer conversational skills prefer the ease of social media). In contrast, by looking at how social media use predicts a trajectory of conversational development over time, you have firmer ground to stand upon if you conclude that social media use is causing conversational deficits. If supported, such findings lead to a lot of other important questions – like what do we do about it?

2. We are drawn to social media because we can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. This is tricky to study empirically because there are several very subjective components to this. One is that we need to measure peoples’ goals accurately – e.g., that people are using social media to gain a sense of companionship. This is self-report based, and there are issues like presentation biases (people might not want to admit why they use social media) that could make such things difficult to measure accurately. Secondly, how do you get at how people feel about the demands of friendship? Will research participants report – “Oh, yes, it’s just too hard dealing with my brother’s emotional demands over the phone all the time. Much easier to text.” Well, maybe some of us would articulate this, but many others might not even be aware that this is what they are doing.

So, in addition to asking people to report on their goals and motivations for social media use, we need to get at implicit processes that they may not be fully conscious of. In the psychology literature, there are tasks such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT requires users to make a series of rapid judgments, which researchers believe might reflect attitudes that people are unwilling to reveal publicly. For example, in gender bias research, the IAT has been used to show that most people associate women more strongly with family and men more strongly with careers. Could the IAT be used to examine attitudes towards social media and friendship?

3. We no longer want to give our full attention to anything, and our devices are the way to escape the “boring bits.” This is also tricky. A lot of recent research has examined multi-tasking in terms of whether it compromises your performance on the tasks you’re trying to do at the same time. The answer is: It does. But, in our hearts, we all knew that, didn’t we?

The issue here, though, is somewhat different than multitasking. It’s about the motivation to multitask. The idea is that we multitask to escape boredom, keep our minds busy and moving at all times.  Maybe some of us do it because of low boredom threshold, feeling uncomfortable with our thoughts, or having so much to do that any time we feel there is an “empty” moment, we try to fill it. There are lots of possibilities. But how do we study this? One way might be to actually put people in a boring situation (some staged boring lecture), with their devices, and see when and if they use them. If they do, ask them about the goals they were trying to meet (I had to answer that one email that was in the back of my mind;  I was bored, and wanted to see what was on my twitter feed). Once we have systematic responses to a real-life scenario from multiple people, we can start to seek out trends in the data.

But, this isn’t so satisfying. So, what if we add some biological measures to get at how using the device changes how we actually feel? Now we’re getting somewhere, because this reveals what using devices “buys us” and why we feel almost addicted to our devices at times. For example, one study showed that using Facebook decreases your physiological signs of stress – it calms you down. But in contrast, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, a study published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. Thus, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all- was ineffective in conveying comfort.  Taken together, these types of studies help get at why (and why not) devices become an integral part of how we cope, and of our emotional lives.

Bottom line. These are all just ideas. But I believe the bottom line is this: We need the Sherry Turkles of the world to help identify these issues and develop compelling hypotheses (and we need those who would disagree with her), but we also need people to, literally, put these ideas to the test.