With mobiles, laptops, BlackBerry, email … we’re available everywhere, 24/7. The costs are solitude, focus and our boundaries. Will we ever do things in person again? Karen Kissane reports.
ONCE upon a time, not so far away, telephone business was conducted at desks; formally, in an office, by people fully dressed at the time. Such an old-fashioned concept. Now, it is possible to be in a toilet cubicle listening to a mobile phone ring in the next stall. Even more remarkably, it is answered by its owner, who then has a dignified conversation with an unsuspecting work contact – despite the indignity of the moment at her end.
Everyone has a story about the intrusiveness of the mobile phone: of the boss who rings while his employee is on a family holiday; of the young woman who embarrasses a bus full of people by her loud argument with a friend; of people on trains who bray into their phones about personal topics ranging from their love lives -“I said to him …” – to the state of their innards – “Yeah no, the doctor reckons …”
For the workaholic, the constant contact offered by a mobile can become an emotional umbilical cord and his relationship with his phone can compete with his real relationships. A Sydney organisational psychologist, Grant Brecht, tells of one couple who came to see him at the wife’s insistence. They had taken a “holiday” together, only to have the husband bring along two mobile phones and spend at least six hours a day talking about work on them. “But my wife is my first priority,” he told Brecht in the first session.
What price this noisy revolution, with its demands for everyone to be available everywhere, 24/7? How do we pay for the convenience of being able to keep tabs on the children while we are at work, and tabs on work while we are with the children? What is happening to solitude, attentiveness and the boundaries between public and private in the age of mobiles and BlackBerries, SMS and email?
One price is a decrease in down time. James Katz, in his book Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, warns perpetual contact means “those who treasure respite may find themselves pressured to replace otherwise excusable isolation with productive tasks. Once … being on board an airplane excused an executive from having to interact with colleagues. No more, for the fax and phone even follow at six miles high.” Worldwide, he says, more people now own a phone than a TV.
The inability to detach from the workplace, whether the pressure comes from the individual or the employer, is a factor in the steady rise of anxiety disorders, Brecht says: “People are burning out with the pressures of work and not being able to get away from it.”
Long work hours are also inefficient. Brecht says English research found people can work at 100 per cent efficiency for only 45 hours a week. The next 10 hours they worked, they fell to 50 per cent efficiency; for any hours after that, 25 per cent efficiency. He says workers who are always available on the mobile and who ring overseas at all hours to check international markets “work hard, but not smart”.
Leisure time is also increasingly important because the pace of work has increased; letters that required action took days to arrive, but emails and text messages demand attention within minutes. “People need time to process the bombardment of communication.”
There is also the question of what electronic communication does to the quality of interactions; does it increase the likelihood of being in touch with everyone, but intimate with no one? A psychologist, Evelyn Field, says: “It’s not a good trend because it doesn’t improve the quality of the friendship or relationship. It just becomes more ‘busyness’. People can be very busy while not doing anything, and people can be communicating electronically and not getting closer; just doing it for the sake of it. It’s almost as if it’s a defence against anxiety.”
She says electronic communication is limited because 90 per cent of human communication is non-verbal. “Body language is 55 per cent, 28 per cent is voice, and only 7 per cent is words.” Shy teenagers who focus largely on communications such as SMS, chat rooms and emails “miss out on what you would feel, hear, smell, sense, pick up in your gut instinct. It’s not good for the development of social skills”.
In workplaces, adults are doing the same thing, Field suggests: “Get off the computer and walk next door and say, ‘Look, I was a bit upset when you said that about my report. What did you mean by it?’ instead of sending some flame email. I think we are losing that ability to confront, or to say, ‘That was really nice, I appreciated it.”‘
Both Field, author of a book called Bully Busting, and Rosalie Pattenden, a senior counsellor with Relationships Australia, have found electronic communications are being enlisted by bullies and obsessives in pursuit of their quarry. Field says teens can sit in their bedrooms and send nasty messages to peers about which their parents know nothing. Pattenden says: “In family violence, when I am working with a couple where he has become obsessed and jealous, she will turn on her phone to find 33 messages from him … It has given people with very poor personal boundaries an opportunity that wasn’t there before to harass people.”
Even for normal families, though, the intrusiveness of the mobile can have negative consequences. The American researcher Noelle Chesley, from the University of Wisconsin, has studied the way technology blurs the boundaries between work and family. Analysing data about 1958 people in a “career couples” study, she concluded there was no evidence of negative consequences of computer use. But “persistent communications use … is significantly linked to increased distress and decreased family satisfaction, as well as increases in negative work-to-family or family-to-work spillover in individuals”, she said. Chesley also found a gender difference in the consequences of mobile phone use: both men and women said it resulted in work spilling into family time in ways that were destructive, but it was only women who reported family spilt over into work in ways they found stressful. She suggested this might not be such a problem for the next generation. “Teenagers expect to be connected 24/7, and tend to be avid and enthusiastic users … The question of ‘blurred boundaries’ may become an irrelevant one for the next generation of workers, spouses and parents because they cannot imagine life any other way.”
Clare Lloyd, a PhD student at Newcastle University, is studying how Australians aged 18 to 35 use their mobile phones. She says the mobile is linked to a sense of agency in the world, their identity and their social power and influence. “I’ve heard people say when they get a text message, ‘Somebody loves me!’ just because someone is thinking of them. A quick emotional response happens that links clearly straight into their sense of identity.”
Is this why teens who can ignore a ringing landline will leap to answer their mobile? There is a greater sense of urgency about a mobile, Lloyd says: “For a start, it’s because it’s your ring tone; the home phone is for a number of people, but because your mobile phone number is not publicly available, you know they are trying to get you.” She agrees “there is a silent time we have less of” now, but adds: “This is not forced upon us; we choose it.”
The mobile phone is likely to become more, rather than less, indispensable. According to Chris Althaus, the chief executive officer of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, Australia has 18 million subscribers and the coming generations of phones will have so many features “there will be almost nothing you can do on your computer that you can’t do on your mobile phone”. This will include, for example, scanning your mobile over a meter to pay for parking. As for feeling invaded, “At the end of the day, you can hit the on-off button,” Althaus says.
As a psychologist, Brecht’s advice is to leave your mobile at home when you go on holidays. In the pithy phrasing of the generation Y and its phone junkies, “Yeah, right.”
OR SWITCHED ON … AND LOVING IT
* THE TEENAGERS
NICOLE NOY got her first mobile when she was 12. She asked her parents for it so she could call them if she was invited to a friend’s house after school at the last minute.
“And I asked for it because I wanted to text people,” she says.
Now 15, she sends about 50 short messages a week, many “just comments and stuff about what’s happening with my friends, like what happened today”.
Her friend Claire Garratt, 14, asked for her phone last year when she was becoming more independent about her activities, “like walking home and going to places”. She also uses it to keep in touch with her friends and to take digital snapshots of them. “Pretty much everyone has one.”
Eighty to 85 per cent of teenagers in years 7 to 12 have mobile phones, according to a 2004 study by the Australian Psychological Society. Most of the 258 adolescents interviewed (57 per cent) got their first mobile at 13 or 14 years old. The main reasons for buying a phone, cited by parents and adolescents, were safety and contact with parents.
Most teenagers in the study (79 per cent) reported making few mobile calls per day, with 39 per cent making no calls most days. Text messages were more popular: 27 per cent send one or two a day, 26 per cent three to five a day, 8 per cent between 6 and 10 a day, and 6 per cent sent more than 10 daily. In the frequent-use group, 1 per cent sent more than 20 text messages most days.
The study found mobile phone costs were not a major source of conflict in families, although a third of teens said they often used credit quicker than they were supposed to, and many said they had to spend more money than they would like because their friends expected them to reply to each message.
But they can run into problems, says a spokesman for the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. He says there has been a big increase in complaints by adult phone owners, and by parents of teens, about the cost of “premium SMSs” from companies selling ringtones, horoscopes or other services. The bills can run into hundreds or thousands of dollars.
But Nicole is on a plan with a cap and Claire is on a plan that she has to pay for out of her pocket money, “so if I go over, I have to pay more”.
Does that keep the bill down? “Sort of. I try!”
* THE EXECUTIVES
YOU always find him in the toilet at parties – alone, except for his Blackberry.
Graeme Samuel, the head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, tries at first to argue that he does not use his Blackberry when he is out for dinner. There is a guffaw in the background, and the man in the car with him – Ian Smith, of public relations company Gavin Anderson and a fellow Blackberry addict – says: “No, you just go into the bathroom.”
Samuel laughs and confesses it’s true. If he’s out socially and needs to check phone messages or emails or news, he takes off for a private moment with the little machine that is an office in a pocket.
“We all do it. People must wonder if you’ve got a physical problem, to be going to the bathroom every 15 minutes,” he says. Samuel also gets out of bed at 2.30 every morning to check the 60 or so news clippings that will have landed in his Blackberry. His body clock wakes him at that time anyway, he says, so he uses the wakefulness for half an hour to get across the day’s developments, think through responses and email any colleagues who need warning of issues. Then he goes back to bed until 5.30am. “I’ve got myself prepared for the day. I know what’s coming through. If I get an early-morning call from the media, I am well prepared,” he says.
But Samuel does set limits on the torrent of electronic communication. His work mobile number always goes through to a human answering service that pages him with messages. He can then decide whether to respond in person or direct the call to a colleague. “It wouldn’t be possible in the role I have got otherwise. You would get calls day and night.”
Smith also says the Blackberry helps him stay on top of things, but acknowledges the downside of its pleasures.
“The danger is that you become obsessed. I have been accused of that by my better half. There was an infamous moment a couple of months ago, about a quarter past 12, when my wife woke up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said ‘Nothing’, which was not technically true because I was sending an email to someone. It’s sort of like being a naughty schoolboy, having a lolly in class and not wanting anyone to see you.”
First published in The Age.