The anxiety of unplugging and why we should disconnect to connect


“This is the first generation of tweens, teens and young adults, who are losing out on developing and strengthening their capacity for one of most essential forms of human connection: the capacity to listen to one another’s tone of voice; to be moved by the affect that we hear—the feeling we hear in tone of voice. As one high school girl described the paradox to me: we’re the most connected generation in history, “but we suck at intimacy.” Kids can text to each other 24/7 but do they know how to be vulnerable? Do they know how to express sadness or even love and other deep emotions?”

Maybe its just me, but as a someone who was a teen in the 1980s I don’t remember this whole “learning to be vulnerable with your friends” phase in high school.

Jello put it best:


My husband was at a party last week and got frustrated when all those around him had their noses buried in the glow of their smartphones while they talked to him and each other.

I was in a small northeastern city last week, and across a number of social events I met a whole bunch of people of a lot of ages. Not one of them had their phones out at any time. A lot of them had smartphones, they just used them differently than the people I know in Boston who are exactly as the author describes.

I think there was a community decision to not walk around ignoring everyone. It was magical.


Not directly related but kind-of…

I had just gotten done listening to it.

I decided to disconnect periodically and it was on of the best decision I have ever made. Going dark is a liberating. I actually had time to think and most of my anxieties went away. I look forward to downshifting everything. Fuck 'em all.

“A mini-moment of disconnect is when, at the sound of the “ping!” or ringtone, at any moment we abandon the people we are in conversation with, engaged with, dining with, and remove ourselves to the land of elsewhere. We all do this, and our kids are doing it, too. We’ve gotten so accustomed to turning away in these mini-moments of disconnection that they have changed the nature of being together.”

“We’ve all developed a weird psychological dependence on our smartphones.”

No, we haven’t all become rude and/or neurotically obsessed. I meet people all the time who will ignore a ringing phone rather than be grossly impolite to others. Several people I know, who must always track their phones, will always politely ask the person speaking to pardon them while they check who is calling, and then if the call must be taken they will apologize and excuse themselves.

In my experience it’s pretty much a social class issue; the lower one is in the class structure the more disrespectful to others one is expected to be. Bill Clinton does not stop paying attention to what Elon Musk is saying when his phone rings. It’s one of our social signifiers I guess.


OMG! Think of the children!!!

I am really not impressed with her arguments.

Yes, smart phones have changed how we interact and yes, socially things are different now that everyone has a phone. But, we are adjusting - just as people did to the presence of car radios and to landline phones back in the good old days.


So there’s talk of “balance” and then there’s this:

"As one high school girl described the paradox to me: we’re the most connected generation in history, “but we suck at intimacy.”
That’s a “high school girl” talking people. (I’m not challenging her feelings, but I would challenge her perception as fact and add that her perception is likely colored by adolescence. She may be right, but how would she know? We aren’t shown. So her comment becomes an emotional appeal, valid as long as you don’t let it frame the conversation)

There’s a blog post by the last psychiatrist (long read btw, very contrarian) that takes a different perspective to the problem

I don’t agree with all of his conclusions but I like that he challenges the premises, especially this one, where we’ve all somehow accepted this idea of being “plugged in” as the default and that all we have to do is find the right balance, and why? Seems to me because its comforting, you don’t have to feel guilty about being plugged in if everybody else is doing it, you just have to find the right “balance”. But as other commenters have already said, this isn’t true, at least not true everywhere and certainly not as pervasive as its made out to be.

So, coming from that point of view the biggest problem I see with the book as its presented in the review is that it seems custom tailored for people who are already too plugged in and by assuming this to be the normal, can offer no way out. Maybe there is no balance, maybe “plugged in” isn’t normal because maybe, just maybe “plugged in” doesn’t mean “being distracted by technology”, maybe it really means “being a dick” and there’s no real balance to be found there is it?

Now I’m not saying there isn’t a problem to be solved, or that the author or the reviewer are being disingenuous, or even that there isn’t an answer. I’m just saying that if the premise goes unquestioned, then this makes the conclusions problematic.


I also call baloney on this, at least as far as classifying it as a problem. This strikes me more as a generational gap. I think the element that is far more interesting is that this is a “generational gap” that is not entirely defined by age of the person. My wife is 3 years younger than me, but doesn’t have a smart phone and snarks on me about pulling out my smart phone when I’m otherwise unoccupied (for example, if she uses the restroom at a restaurant or goes into a changing room at a store). She also states that while she has a Facebook account, she wouldn’t miss just not using it.

I see it from an entirely different perspective. What possible reason would I have for standing there unoccupied while I’m waiting for someone? What is compelling about not checking your phone?

Similarly, haven’t there been numerous stories about how technology has NOT created a generation of hermits, as was initially bandied about by luddites, but instead created opportunities for even more connectedness? Thanks to smart phones and the internet, it’s easier to stay in touch with friends, coordinate meetings, reach out to friends who just happen to be passing by, and lo, that’s what people are doing! They’re using technology to facilitate these “rich” connections, and many are realizing that there’s a variety of ways to converse with others at various levels of “richness.”

Now, if the author were to write about how people are experiencing the world through their smart phones rather than direct experience – like filming fireworks on their ipad by holding their ipad in front of their face, instead of just looking at the dang things – that might be more relevant. What’s worse, often these filmed/secondary experiences are filmed in terrible quality!

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You are talking about a different thing than the author is.

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I don’t think so. I don’t feel any anxiety by NOT pulling my phone out – I feel boredom. If I’m at a party and my phone is out, that means it’s a pretty dang boring party.

That doesn’t mean that I must be stimulated every waking moment. I sleep GREAT every night, even though I typically wind down by playing some Words with my mom who lives 1000 miles away.

The “tl;dr” response is that I think this is the same complaint that the “world is moving too fast nowadays and people can’t keep up.” No, people are keeping up just fine. They’re adapting. Pulling out one’s phone doesn’t inherently mean that the person isn’t paying attention to you. If you grow up used to stimulation coming at you in myriad ways, you find a way to deal with it all. For younger people – and plugged-in adults who have no problem with this situation – they’ve already adapted to handling this situation and focusing as needed.

I feel like these kinds of articles are written in an attempt to blame the people who embrace new technologies and social developments, rather than focusing on how best to adapt and adopt.




Agreed, I ignore the alert noises unless there’s some sort of emergency situation going on and I’ve set up specific sounds for specific contacts. But otherwise I focus on who I’m talking to. We’re all not slaves to the beeps.

Now that’s what she’s talking about. That is rude, like dramatically yawning while someone is talking to you. If it’s so intolerable that you have to be checking Facebook instead of interacting with people, leave. Part of growing up is learning how to deal with being bored, quiet, or alone when necessary.

Or getting wasted and dancing around with a lampshade on your head, your pick.


I agree. There is tremendous social pressure to conform. Though I have accounts, I don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn. I have a dumb phone and my plan lacks texting. I am no luddite: I run Linux, program online discussion tools professionally and am a scholar studying online communication. I am 41. I have tried these technologies and chosen to avoid them.

I am finding that choice untennable. The world is being rearchitected to exclude any who do not use these technologies. (A third of Americans do not have a smart phone.) Those without are being made into second-class citizens increasingly and unecessarily limited in their ability to engage in basic activities. Numbered customer service tickets and bus schedules are replaced with text messages, resumes with LinkedIn profiles.

A previous generation tore up our streetcars and rebuilt our cities so that in many neigborhoods we now need cars to buy milk, to get to work, to meet with friends, to take our children safely to school. We dismantled our cities. This was a mistake. I had high hopes for the Internet (it is because I refuse to give up these hopes that I do not use Facebook), but I believe we are doing it again.

Although these technologies are valuable, we will pay a huge price for handing a few companies the keys to our everyday lives. We do it gladly. I would blame no-one for using these things, nor praise anyone for rejecting them. I do not think this is a question of individual courtesy, but a problem of a society that cannot distinguish conformity from freedom. Adorno and Horkheimer quote de Tocqueville: “You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day you are a stranger among us.”

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After I confess that I, too, will get annoyed by interacting with those who use their devices to engage with their friends, colleagues, chums and associates in a way never before possible, I may entertain the thought that our sluggishness in coping with the new norms may be only temporary.

In a plugged-in world, it’s going to be increasingly more likely that we face-to-facers are the distraction and that maybe we should get over ourselves.

My instinct is to agree with your assessment (although I loath it when people can’t even keep their eyes off their phone long enough to pretend to pay attention: either interact with me or interact with your phone, that’s your call; but you aren’t actually that good at multitasking…), technology has been dehumanizing and ruining the youth since writing destroyed the art of memory sometime in the classical period (good thing one of the students was taking notes, so we know about how oral skills were annihilated by that fateful decision…)

However, I would add that that little Jeremiad is both fluffier and (potentially) more interesting because it could actually be tested.

Guess what? Thanks to autism-spectrum disorders, NVLD, etc. that, among other things, have a major impact on the assorted squishy affect-inferring capabilities that the author gets all sentimental about, there is now a very, very, strong interest in better understanding, more accurately measuring, and ideally learning how to improve/develop, exactly these sorts of capabilities.

This makes just whining about it based on anecdotes, nostalgia, and vague feelings less defensible; but it also means that said whining could be beaten into the shape of actual testable hypotheses. Do smartphone addicts perform worse on tests of inferring emotion from human facial cues? Do they have weaker capabilities in grasping subtextual elements in speech, or exhibit speech less informative to others?

It wasn’t developed for text-messaging fiends; but all the assorted test material is there all the same. If your thesis is that something has those sorts of effects, you should be able to hunt them down. To the ScienceDROME!

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I remember that in early 90s Britain.

Having the shit kicked out of me and being verbally abused on a regular basis for not being heteronormative gave me some very good lessons on being vulnerable with my “friends”. The internet was a lifesaver from everyday in person interactions. I just wish I had access to it a few years earlier.


Glad this thread is fairly reasonable. While I also think it’s obnoxious if someone is constantly looking at their phone and ignoring me while we were theoretically having a conversation, it’s not the end of the world if glance at our phones in case we get an important phone call or email or whatever.

The reason articles like this annoy me (for the record, I didn’t read every last word), it seems to assume that people magically started ignoring people in this past decade. My grandparents never owned a computer (or smartphone, iPad, etc) and were perfectly able to half ignore each other at breakfast with their newspapers, crossword puzzle and scientific calculator.

But it wasn’t some big stupid problem — sometimes people need their half alone time. Come dinner, at the same table, we had conversations like “normal” human beings. Or once in a while, one of them wanted to watch one of their TV shows alone instead. SOMEHOW we all managed and didn’t explode.

Obviously phones take it to a new level, but give me a break. Have some effing manners and call it a day.