Do smart phones decrease empathy?


[C]onversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. It’s where empathy is born, where intimacy is born because of eye contact, because we can hear the tones of another person’s voice, sense their body movements, sense their presence. It’s where we learn about other people. —Sherry Turkle

One of the greatest gifts we can give others is our full attention.

Sherry Turkle underscores that point by reminding us that relationships are formed from and strengthened by careful attention to the nuances of communication, particularly during the earliest years of life. Such interactions are the substance of strong relationships for young and old alike.

Smart phones challenge our ability to offer our full attention to others.

Turkle agrees. “Eighty-nine percent of Americans,” she notes, “say that during their last social interaction, they took out a phone, and 82 percent said that it deteriorated the conversation they were in. Basically, we’re doing something that we know is hurting our interactions.”

Turtle adds: ”If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted, which makes sense, and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.”

Do you agree: Does the mere presence of a smart phone (or other screens) interfere with the quality of attention and conversation?

8 Responses to “Do smart phones decrease empathy?”

  1. 1 Karen September 21, 2016 at 7:33 am

    I do agree that the mere presence of a smart phone deteriorates the conversation.

    One recurring situation that I have noticed with increasing frequency In recent years is that the deterioration often occurs when a device is used as a tool for clarification, as a source to seek additional ‘details’ or ‘facts’ perceived to relate directly to the conversation. As such, the focus moves from personal engagement, eye contact, and deep listening to impersonal viewing of the screen. When this happens, it seems that the natural consequence is that our conversational connection with each other and our attention to each other weaken and our effort to skilfully engage in a deep, meaningful conversation is derailed. Today’s message resonated with me and I, personally, will try to minimize this behaviour on my part.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks September 21, 2016 at 2:00 pm

      I appreciate, Karen, that you’ve brought another dimension to the distractions caused by smartphones—the immediate satisfaction of curiosity regarding something stimulated by the conversation when that information is not essential to the conversation.

  2. 3 sybil40049 September 21, 2016 at 10:09 am

    I do agree with today’s comments, but what do you do if distance prevents direct contact?

    • 4 Dennis Sparks September 21, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      I’m not sure exactly what you mean, Sybil, but I’ll take a guess: What do you do if are awaiting a call or message from someone who is not present but with whom you’d like to speak.

      The first thing to do, I think, is to schedule a time for the call. Given that that is not always possible, another approach would be to inform the person with whom you are talking about the possibility of an important incoming message or call and to ask permission in advance to interrupt the conversation should that happen. Nonetheless, the phone or screen could be placed outside the line of sight of everyone involved in the conversation.

      If conversations are frequently interrupted by such distractions it may be necessary to decide who is more important—the person in front of us who has set aside time for us or someone who expects that we will be available whenever he or she wishes.

      I’m sure readers will have other suggestions…

  3. 5 Deanne Moore September 21, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Agreed! It definitely detracts from the quality of the present moment.

  4. 7 cathygassenheimer October 3, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    I recently read Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation and found her findings to be deeply disturbing. Just last week, I was facilitating two back-to-back retreats at a camp where internet access was quite limited and undependable. I noticed a big uptick in personal conversations, walking in the woods, and reading. And, an added bonus was the fact that we couldn’t watch the presidential debate (I type this with somewhat of tongue-in-cheek).

    I do think we need to seek balance and not be as tied to our phones, iPads, or other devices. And, we need to get our children/students back to nature where there are so many wonders that don’t require a password or wireless connection.

    • 8 Dennis Sparks October 3, 2016 at 5:43 pm

      Your comment, Cathy, made me think of the likely link between “smart” technology and what some people call “nature deprivation syndrome.” I saw a recent study that found that people are more relaxed and feel a greater sense of well-being when they spend even a few minutes a day walking in natural settings.

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