Is the smartphone killing off society's social skills?

Is the smartphone killing off society's social skills?

Summary: Did you ever notice how sometimes things can seem absolutely normal, until you look around and realize you could be in a Doctor Who episode?

TOPICS: Mobility

Did you ever notice how sometimes things can seem absolutely normal, until you look around and realize you could be in a Doctor Who episode?

Last night was like that. It was late and I was at a local pub celebrating a friend's birthday. I'm not much of a pub creature. I sowed my wild oats a long time ago. Sowed them, harvested them, cooked them, and made meal out of them. But I'm -- quite thankfully -- past those days.

As a result, I only find myself in a pub-like atmosphere on those few occasions when I didn't plan far enough in advance to have a good excuse to get out of a social event. That means I manage to avoid having to go out on the town more than once every two or three months.

I've noticed this Doctor Who feeling before, but I've now gathered enough data to be pretty clear on its reliable repeatability. Humans in social situations no longer socialize.

Instead, they've become cyborgs, attached to their tiny screens, reading and googling and facebooking and amazoning and IMDBIng and twittering rather than talking to the people they go out to meet.

It's the oddest thing. Pubs used to be places people went to socialize and meet other people. Now they're Internet cafes with teeny-tiny computers everyone brings with them.

If you look around, you'll see most heads buried in the glow of the small screen. When one person talks to another, the one with her head in the screen will mumble "uh huh" a few times. If this goes on long enough, the speaker will turn to her tiny screen.

Then, a few minutes later, the first screenhead will pop up with a picture or something to show on her screen. It could be an actor on IMDB, a picture of a concert, an infant niece or nephew, or — the crowd pleaser of crowd pleasers — a kitten or a puppy.

All of a sudden, everyone will look up from their screens to look at the proffered picture. The hand holding the showcase screen will do an arc, everyone will nod or smile appropriately, and then — boom — heads back into their screens.

This can go on for hours.

Once in a while, someone will get up for a drink or a leak or a snack (or to get replacement batteries for their e-cigarette — another sign of the Doctor Who world we live in now).

But, mostly, everyone just looks into their screens.

We don't go out to socialize any more. We go out to be in the same room as other people while we all jack into the Matrix. One of these days, we're not going to bother even going out. As long as there are delivery services, we'll be okay. But once everyone gets jacked in, we'll all just wither and die.

And then we'll find that the smartphone didn't just kill off our social skills, it killed off our will to live.

Tune in tomorrow, for our next all-new episode, when The Doctor discovers that our wearable technology is giving all humans skin rashes.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topic: Mobility


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Rename it to face to face communication

    And 100,000% yes.
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  • After seeing the behavior of my fellow audience members...

    I have concluded that smartphones have reinforced the widely-known fact that there are more horses' asses than there are horses.

    I went to a Steely Dan concert Monday night, with seats in the fourth row, but was angered and VERY disappointed that my fellow audience members could not contain their use of their smartphones to take pictures and movies of the performance, text about the event in real time, accept and create emails during the concert and generally create a visual distraction with dozens of smartphone screens popping up to block my view of the stage and/or buzz around in my peripheral vision to spoil an otherwise nice concert.

    I'm sure if I had been further back in the audience, the sea of smartphone screens that would have greeted my eyes would have been even MORE disturbing.

    The following quote from Robert Heinlein is, I think, appropriate:
    “A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”
    ― Robert A. Heinlein, Friday

    That was the last liive concert I will attend. For the same reason I don't go to movie theatres anymore (some people's inconsiderate actions spoil the show for everyone else), I have seen my last live concert.
    • Sad but true

      Thanks for the Heinlein quote. Turns out that he was a prophet in more ways than one.

      The lack of face-to-face communication really diminishes the humanity of us all. The rudeness and cruelty that often passes for communication in the cyberworld would clearly be unacceptable in the real world.

      To take Heinlein's quote even further, I believe that a nation where courtesy gives way to rudeness cannot be a free nation for long. If we cannot respect each other's rights and interact with each other politely when an authority figure is not around to police us, the government of necessity will step in to maintain peace and order and to school us in the proper way in which to handle interpersonal relationships. That is certainly not the kind of world that I want to live in.
      sissy sue
      • I'm already living there

        I live in Thailand, the Junta is doing exactly what you propose.

        So far so good, but dates still tend to be either present or absent based on phone addiction.
    • Manners died out a long, long time ago

      I go to a lot of live concerts -- I have for many years -- and rude behavior came along long before smartphones were invented. In a way, smartphones at concerts have been more of a benefit to me than an irritation. Seeing the concert on someone's smartphone screen is often the only thing I get to see of the concert once everyone has decided to stand in front of (or on) their seats blocking the view of everyone behind them. For years scoring front-center-section floor tickets was a great prize but then people just started standing through the whole concert and one could do better with tickets in the balcony. That's been true more often than not at least 10-15 years. When it began, it rarely happened in nice theaters and concert halls -- but was very common in arenas, multipurpose auditoriums, etc. -- these days it is likely to happen anywhere. If that's a sign of a dying culture, it's dying very slowly.
  • I agree

    the whole "social network" thing has made people in many ways less social. It's as if people are unable to communicate face to face. I do quite a bit of interviewing for new hires, and I have found a large percentage (not most thankfully) of recent college grads have trouble maintaining eye contact and talking directly to an interviewer. Older experienced workers are better able to communicate in these settings. Your pub experience is not unusual. Go to any large gathering of people, sporting events, weddings, etc and many people are more interested in what is on their phones, than what is going on in their surroundings.
  • You're realizing that just now?

    I've noticed that a while ago. It even extends to the point that people feel it's less important to show them who you are, as opposed to what you have. (Even right here you have the same people arguing about who uses the better smartphone/tablet/app/company).

    Now, showing pictures is part of socializing, in the old days you brought the prints with you to share, today you just have them on your phone, so I see no real difference there.

    What I do see is that people seem more interested in themselves, the phone a means to assure themselves they are the most important person, as "isn't someone email or texting me right now? I must be important". The person you're with can wait their turn, as "I" need to respond to this text that Bradley Cooper is single again.

    I mentioned it in the past here that I met my wife, a beautiful woman who many showed an interest in, only because I made the choice to socialize with her, and totally ignored the big game on the screen we all gathered to watch. Others chose to interrupt their conversations by turning their attention to the game repeatedly.

    Today it's the phone that gets the attention, that removes the social from social gatherings, the devices that asks for your attention, but only if you're willing to give it.
  • Pretty sad ... actually

    Can't spell, can't construct a grammatically correct sentence, can't communicate "face to face", have forgotten the true meaning of friendship ("I have thousands of friends" - yeah, sure you do)
    The illusion of being "connected" all the time.
    Seemingly unable to enjoy "wireless" Nature.
    If this is progress, then I'm glad I'm 69 and not 29.
    da philster
  • Lack of socialization in general

    Dave, you made a big point of describing the lengths you go to avoid social gatherings and then point out the foibles of others. I'm not pointing the finger because I do it also.

    Perhaps it's more a sign of the times than a byproduct of smartphones?
  • Socializing

    There are people who avoid this situation and socialize. My wife and I have a favorite "Pub" that is in an area with no cell phone service and we meet great people and enjoy the conversation and music with no distractions by electronic devices.
    • Market that appeal!

      Put up some cellular absorbing material (cell signal jamming is against the law unfortunately) and advertise your bar as cell signal free!
    • Conversation

      I must be lucky, none of my friends or family bury themselves in smartphones or tablets in social situations.

      The devices are banned from the dinner table and generally don't get used in front of the TV, when there are more people in the room.

      Going out for social occassions, generally none of the friends or family bring a tablet along and phones are only pulled out when somebody asks if they have a more up to date photo of a niece or nephew.
  • Agree!

    But after 4 weeks in the United States, I think it is funny you sees this behavior as something new. Almost all typical American meeting places such as pubs, bars and restaurants are full of TV screens that show various channels mainly sport at high volume. People are just staring at those screens with their mouth slightly open (when not chewing). It's not exactly similar to the ego-trip the average smart phone owner has, but it is not that far away.
    • sounds like

      you where in sports bars. TVs showing sports are kind of the point. Many bar areas have TVs, but the dining areas generally are TV free.
  • Why is the person who's *NOT* in the room more important?

    As a general rule, I now try to avoid cellphone junkies. Sheesh, we have this one woman at the gym who does aerobics while using her cell!!!

    Kinda like when the sales guy at the store answers the phone and makes me wait. He's taking me for granted, so unless he has something I can't get elsewhere, I walk out!
    • Funny you mention that - I was at a store the other day

      when a women walked up to the cashier with her item, talking on her phone, and would not take a moment to put the phone down to pull out her money to pay for the item. The cashier canceled her sale, and waved me around her and took care of me.

      The woman then stopped and demanded to know what the cashier was doing, and when she explained, the women responded "well, didn't you see I was right in the middle of something on my phone?".

      She walked out without buying the item, mentioning to the person on the phone (as I was walking out behind her) that she will call the manager to let them know how rude the cashier was....
      • Similar events

        In a high-end clothing store here a while back, the owner actually told a woman to get out of his store and come back when she'd learned some manners! Of course, she was trying to buy something while simultaneously carrying on a phone conversation.

        And I spotted a sign on the cash register at a deli in Florida last week: "Get the hell off your damn phone!"
        • LOL!

          A "Get the hell off your damn phone!" sign.

          I like it. :)
        • It does not say get off

          but where I work there are signs all over that says "Stop to Talk" and "Stop to Text".. with a picture of a cell under it.. and they are serious about it too. Cuts down a lot on the cell junkies getting a fix, they don't want to stand on the sidewalk talking or texting.. might get some sun doing that!