Of Social Media, Smartphones, and the Art of Modern Conversation.

As a young student, a member of Generation Y, I am often criticised for my ownership and use of a smartphone.

I am frequently informed of the damage my brain cells must be enduring. I am told that I will soon be lacking in social skills, that I rely too heavily on social media to the detriment of being among real, tangible fellow humans (not that I am being encouraged to actively seek out strangers and pat them down to reassure myself of our shared humanity). My retorts, being along the lines of ‘I need it to stay in contact with friends and acquaintances’, ‘I can access news, articles, emails, texts and my uni account on the same device’ and ‘Rest assured, I can still talk for Ireland even with my smartphone in hand’ tend to fall on deaf ears.

Suffice to say, I feel that both sides of the argument have merit, and deserve recognition.

The technophobes, the smartphone cynics, the Internet worriers have a valid point when they profess their fears that with each new generation, valuable social skills are subtly being eroded with the over-reliance of smartphones and social media. Millennials, the technophiles and the Internet-savvy praise smartphones for their efficiency, their functionality and their effortlessly chic design and sleek look. The former say the young generation are suffering from a ‘entertainment and satisfaction now’ demand culture due to the ease in which entertainment, information et al can be accessed with one tap on the touchscreen. The latter say it is time to move forwards, and anyway – look at how smartphone technology benefits everyone, from students to career professionals. So, who is right? As I stated previously, both sides of the argument strike notes of reason and truth.

Allow me to regale you with my tale of growing up with modern technology, as did all born into my generation.

Whilst attending primary school, the internet was still in its infancy, and owning a computer was not exactly common, either. I can recall my sister and I using Gameboys and our trusty Nintendo 64 for entertainment. When the family computer materialised one Christmas, I was in P3, and I remember thinking that whilst it looked ‘cool’, I could draw and write without it and preferred reading books. (Eventually my sister and I loved to play a 102 Dalmatians PC game, and we would look forward to logging in on Friday after-school.) The Encyclopaedia Britannia was our Wikipedia, our reliable one-stop source for homeworks. Mobile phones complimented friendships and the out-of-school socialising; ‘calling’ on your friends by walking around to their house to request their parents’ permission to let them come out and play was the norm. You played outside on the street, or in your back garden. You enjoyed being in the sun (again, not exactly a common occurrence growing up in Ireland) and splashing in puddles when it rained. You felt the wind in your hair and the dirt under your nails if you played with insects as I did, and were content.

During first half of my secondary school career, mobile phones were perhaps two steps above bricks, with tiny screens. The flip phone was the smartphone of my youth, and when cameras were introduced, we genuinely thought no further improvements could surely come about. The Internet was a world of unlimited potential and adventure. Social media was rapidly developing, with MySpace and Bebo crazes running rampant. Social media meant that school friendships – and rivalries – did not end when the bell tolled at the conclusion of the last class. You ‘added’ friends, you ‘shared love’ and soon it was a competition of popularity. MSN Messenger provided instant messaging for a new generation, with baby-faced teenagers professing love in an evening and the next day were in a relationship, or friends suddenly having an argument by night and shunning each other the next day.

Yet all this required a computer and a mobile phone. If your older sister needed the computer for homework, then you could not log into MSN and talk to your friends that night, thus you could miss out on conversation developments, and be lost amid inside jokes the next day. Conversely, a friend could be upset in school, so you would message them that evening to find out if they were keeping okay. Gone were the days of having to wait for parents to finish talking on the phone so you could ring/receive calls – IM neatly suited everyone.

Then the Apple revolution happened, and communication, socialising, friendships – life itself, rather – changed forever. (Insert dramatic music here).

I will focus of the rise of the smartphone, and not on the birth of the iPod. I was actually one of the last to use and own a smartphone. I have had only one, an Apple iPhone 5, and it has been with me since my second year of university, so nearly three years in total. I am not an Apple devotee, but I have to admire the Apple global empire, its success in marketing and its business strategy. As a child, though, you do not realise or understand business or marketing. You only know that there is a cool new product that has everyone talking, and all your friends have it. This was the case in the second half of my secondary school career, but it starts earlier now for the new generation – essentially from primary school.

With the rise of the smartphone and the creation of a certain website called Facebook, there came a startling new concept: one device for texting, phone calls, emails, messaging, social media and all would be available in the palm of your hand, away from prying parental or friends’ eyes. It was bold, it was brilliant and it was instantly useful and popular.

And yet… And yet, for every positive note, there came a negative one. And this is still ongoing, with the rise of smartphones being questioned at each and every new development.

Yes, with the rise of social media use you can now talk to your friends, upload photographs and essentially have fun on social media, but what about the proportional rise in online bullying? For every time you post  a tweet containing a summary of your opinion on X issue, what about the potential of abuse of trolls?

I have had my share of arguments and criticism online. I do not feel that social media and the existence of smartphones in any way are to be blamed for human emotions. But one cannot deny that their very dominant presence perhaps assists in the instigation and continuation of fights and whatnot fuelled by emotion. With a smartphone in hand, I could pick a fight with someone I have never met in my life in the comments section of a newspaper article Facebook post. (We have all read derogatory comments involving personal appearance and swearing being hurled about by strangers on social media. That a modern argument seems to consist of, ‘you’re f***ing stupid bi*** no wonder any man would want you lol’ makes me sad and frustrated in equal measures.) I could commence the fight, belittle and insult this person, and then dismiss them without moving from my seat or opening my mouth, and could just set my mobile down with a cold, detached air. Why? Because I could.

Yet equally, I could strike up a conversation with this stranger on another side of the world about a musical group, or maybe we agree on politics, or both wish there was better character development in a certain television programme. We exchange messages, ‘follow’ each other and over time we suddenly become close, dependable friends. I can send them a message with a silly meme I know why will giggle at when they publicly post about having a bad day in several quick taps. Why? Because I could.

A smartphone is rightly hailed as being a ‘wonder tool’, but what happened to a mobile phone simply being a portable telephone? What happened to phone calls and hearing a human voice, now that we turn to toneless and emotionless Facebook messaging? Are face-to-face communications, in the age of modern technology and the need for instant satisfaction, being shied away from? I once read an article which discussed how portability killed the telephone as we know it.

‘Phone calls—you know, where you put the thing up to your ear and speak to someone in real time—are becoming relics of a bygone era, the “phone” part of a smartphone turning vestigial as communication evolves, willingly or not, into data-oriented formats like text messaging and chat apps…’

As a child, I remember hearing the multitude of voices in public places such as the bus-stop or on the bus, when people were either speaking to each other or on their (two steps away from a brick) mobile phones. And though I was always told that it was terribly rude to eavesdrop, sometimes I could not help it, as the world was full of sound and interesting people. You would hear people complain to their girlfriends about how their boyfriend was being an eejit, or vice versa. Mothers would fret about their children, who were calling from their student accommodation. Discussions about sport, politics, even the shopping – it was a canopy of sound. Nowadays, when you step onto a bus, generally everyone has their head creaked downwards, and the sound is of keyboard recognition or taps on a screen. Sometimes there is that hilariously awkward moment when someone accidentally holds down  the home screen button and Siri awakens. This person will hurriedly exit the software, before sheepishly grinning an apology to his erstwhile bus companions. (It is even better if this happens during a lecture.) I thought that Northern Ireland was bad, but whenever I have been in London for work experience placements, I was shocked at the lack of socialising on transport and the dominance of smartphones, most especially evident on the tube. In Northern Ireland, you will still have people engaging in spontaneous conversation on the bus (it tends to commence with the weather before we all engage in complaining about the extortionate fares charged by Translink. The conversation currently in vogue tends to be about Ireland’s chances at the Rugby World Cup).

Not to mention that when I was younger, you always had to ring around your extended family to wish them a Happy Birthday, or thank them for Christmas and Birthday presents. Or you had to ring up friends to confirm you were attending their parties, and when you were older, you spent hours gossiping about school and music and fellas with the girls. Now, we still communicate with our families, but with posting on their Facebook walls, or sending e-cards. We still spend hours talking to friends, but through instant messaging. Conversations no longer neatly conclude, we just stop talking and reply when it suits. There is nothing worse as a young person than messaging someone, seeing that ‘message read at such time’ alert on the screen, and receive no reply. Awkward silences are more prevalent now in conversations, which also tend to include at some point, ‘did you see their Facebook status?’ or ‘and then he messaged me this, saying he was busy, but he still had time to post a tweet and not reply to me?’ Social media in the form it is used online has become the social media method of communication in face-to-face conversation.

The article I referenced previously commented that perhaps for people who have a fear of talking to others over the phone, or feel that phone calls are intrusive, social media and smartphones are the answer:

‘When asked, people with a distaste for phone calls argue that they are presumptuous and intrusive, especially given alternative methods of contact that don’t make unbidden demands for someone’s undivided attention. In response, some have diagnosed a kind of telephoniphobia among this set. When even initiating phone calls is a problem—and even innocuous ones, like phoning the local Thai place to order takeout—then anxiety rather than habit may be to blame: When asynchronous, textual media like email or WhatsApp allow you to intricately craft every exchange, the improvisational nature of ordinary, live conversation can feel like an unfamiliar burden.’

No phone call can be more intrusive than cold-callers, or charity call centres. Case in point: I once donated to UNICEF, and everyday for the past three weeks a call centre professing to be fundraising on UNICEF’s behalf has rang me without fail – even on a Sunday. I refuse to answer, for if I did, not only would my name be mangled (I am always called ‘Lee’ and the correct pronunciation of my surname is apparently ‘Ree-ah’) but I would be subjected to guilt-tripping, and begged to establish a monthly direct debit donation. And as a poor unemployed student, that would be impossible. I once brought this exact point up to another call-centre charity caller, and only to be asked ‘oh… In that case how much could you afford to give, do you think?’

Thus for those who have to battle social anxiety when dialling a number to ring, social media and its comforting distance will sooth and relax. But yet it also means that for my generation, when contacting potential employers, or speaking to professionals, we will feel at a disadvantage, for this is not our playing field. Thus my generation may even struggle in an office environment, or in general employment, for the art of the telephone conversation still endures there. However, we can claw back several points as we tend to have a natural competency using computers, office programmes and with emails. See what I mean? The positives and the negatives appear to tantalisingly produce an uneasy equilibrium.

With the prevalence of smartphone culture and consequential contact ease, professionals may find that the boundaries between personal and professional, work and life could become blurred. Are employees under greater pressure to check emails, reports, memos etc. on to go and outside of office hours due to their smartphone ownership?

During the summer, Time published an articled entitled ‘Here’s Why Email Puts You in a Nasty Mood’ which examined how a combination of anxiety for work during out-of-office hours, and replying to emails and the like during non-work hours aka ‘free time’ result in professionals feeling stressed and under pressure to be available to their boss even in their own time. This article followed the results of research undertaken by the University of Hamburg which suggested that the pressure of replying to work emails during out-of-office hours may be psychologically damaging:

‘…But all that continuous connection comes at a cost to our health, finds new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Larissa Barber, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University, has a name for this phenomenon: telepressure. It’s the urge to respond immediately to work-related messages, no matter when they come….

This continuous work connection has very real health effects, the study found: employees who reported more telepressure also reported worse sleep, higher levels of burnout and more health-related absences from work.’

The consequence of such an anxiety of work during non-work hours, and smartphone culture, means that professionals will find it difficult to engage in the non-work aspect of their lives. Thus work will dominant in another area of a professional’s life, the one which should be there’s to enjoy: that of their free time.

Needless to say, smartphone culture, modern technology and their influence in conversation in our modern society is only too real, and likely to stay. Smartphones and social media undoubtedly have brought many benefits. Personally speaking, as  a young student, to be able to catch up on news and current affairs, contact friends, check both my university and personal email and so on with one device in one setting is extremely efficient and useful. I can use social media to remain in touch with people around the world in different timezones, such as my European friends, or my American friends.

Yet, there are also downsides, namely the decline in being human, so to speak. We do not interact face-to-face as frequently as Generation X did, we do not engage in telephone conversations, seemingly preferring distant methods of communication such as Facebook Messenger. Many extol the virtues of modern technology and argue children should be exposed to same from increasingly earlier ages. Young children tend to play games or follow social media, not play outside. Toddlers are being given the mobiles of their parents to play with, instead of the parents themselves playing with their children. iPads and computers are used more frequently in the classroom than even in my day, which leads to concerns that children are not developing vital pen-holding and writing skills, and are developing instead shorter attention and concentration spans due to their susceptibility to the instantaneous gratification culture cultivated by smartphone and app use.

I will conclude by referring to my introduction. As a young student, a member of Generation Y, I am often criticised for my ownership and use of a smartphone. Yet I cannot help but feel that such criticism is, in fact, a non sequitur. My membership of this generation defines me, and explains my use of and confidence with such technology. To put it simply, I grew up with technology and continuous new developments in communications, internet possibilities, social media and the very access to these. Having said that, my Generation Y membership does not prevent me from criticising modern technology, nor deny its effects in everyday life.

Perhaps we should consider our use of smartphones, social media etc. along the same lines as we treat alcohol, chocolate and Netflix – everything in moderation.


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