It’s probably happened to you: You’re in a public place, typing away on your phone, when someone taps you on the shoulder and gives you grief for not being present, or something similarly judge-y. This sort of interaction can lead to an existential shame spiral in which you question whether your device really has taken over your life.
Instead of being hard on yourself, however, the next time this happens, consider one therapist's perspective on our codependent relationship with our phones.
New York City-based psychotherapist Martha Crawford recently overheard Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology and society at MIT, being interviewed on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show about her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. In the book, Turkle laments the loss of meaningful conversations as a direct result of the rise of the smartphone, and how it’s hurting relationships—particularly between parents and children.
While Crawford agrees that smartphones can be disruptive in some scenarios, the therapist took to Twitter to show that the argument about how smartphones impact human interactions is not so black and white.
In her interview, Turkle mentions a number of statistics, including one stating that 82% of Americans feel that smartphones have deteriorated conversation. “People are aware that they’re doing something that isn’t quite in their best interest,” she said in the radio interview. While it’s easy to take overwhelming statistics like that as the gospel, in Crawford’s professional and personal experience, there’s a more nuanced way of looking at when and why we rely on our phones.
“I spent the past year in [an] active caretaking relationship to two family members who were dying, while also caring for my psychotherapy clients—many of them long distance—and parenting my children,” Crawford told me in an email on Monday.
For Crawford, her smartphone was not a luxury but a necessity during this demanding period of her life. “Maintaining intimacy in all of these relationships, as well as seeking and receiving my own support, often had to happen through digital spaces: arranging hospice care, talking about death and dying, following up [on] missing homework assignments, checking in on my children when I was unable to be right near them, processing my own thoughts and ideas in writing, in active correspondence with other people—even on social media—who knew my circumstance,” she said.
But frequent smartphone use can reflect other personal issues, too. On Twitter, Crawford mused that perhaps people who are more introverted rely on smartphones for human interaction, and extroverted people tend to be less understanding of this.
In her eyes, laboring over one’s phone isn’t so disparate from people writing lengthy love letters in the past. After all, she points out, weren’t those letter writers also avoiding human interactions?
A whopping 64% of Americans are smartphone owners, according to a 2015 Pew Research study: by contrast, that number was just 35% in 2011. And for 10% of Americans, a smartphone is their primary means of accessing the internet—so while it’s entirely possible the person you see on their phone in public is playing Candy Crush, a majority of smartphone users have used their devices for important tasks like looking up a health condition or online banking.
After other Twitter users began jumping on Crawford’s argument that smartphones can be used for meaningful person-to-person communication, she clarified what exactly her objections were to Turkle’s argument. She told Fusion that she “was writing about reactive assumptions that people 'on phones' are not engaged 'in real relationships' and that 'real' relationships are only determined by external proximity in shared physical spaces.”
Turkle’s argument, in fairness, is also not binary. In a response to a WNYC caller, she said: “The point is not to say that texting is bad, or texting is lesser. The point is to be respectful of what conversation can do and make sure that we have enough of it in our lives and in the lives of the kids that we’re raising so that they develop the empathic skills and the fluid skills of conversation that allow them to have the relationships that they need to have with other people, and also with themselves…we learn how to have conversations with ourselves in conversation with other people.”
So how do you handle a person—stranger or not—who is critical of how you use your smartphone?
"When strangers have confronted me for not moving fast enough through a queue at a register for 'being on my phone,' I have responded: 'You assume that my phone distracts from what is most important—and you would be inaccurate,'" Crawford said.
So while it may be uncouth to stare at your phone in the middle of lunch with a friend, the next time you consider openly criticizing someone for their smartphone use, remember that there might be someone or something important on the other end of the screen.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.