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Opinion and Editorial

Social distancing began with the smartphone

Anthony Silard
Filed on June 24, 2020

The coronavirus is the second threat to our way of life in the past 13 years to result in unprecedented social distancing. The first, which appeared in 2007, is the smartphone.

First, the obvious needs stating: our phones are amazing. They offer some damn exciting options. This is why we're on them so much. The pixelated screen you hold in your hand offers myriad opportunities- from staying in contact with far-away friends and finding recipes to checking esoteric song lyrics and video chatting with colleagues about a work project - that we couldn't have dreamed of only one generation ago.

Yet the dark underbelly of our devices has now emerged into plain view. Let's consider some of the smartphone's destructive consequences to how we experience our lives by focusing on some highly negative intrapersonal outcomes it has worsened: loneliness, depression and anxiety, and diminished empathy.

The "epidemic" designation is global. It has also been recently invoked in the UK, for example, by the Royal College of General Practitioners. Britain is further ahead of the loneliness curve than the US; former Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018. May made this decision on the heels of two studies that found that 9 million British citizens are often or always lonely and that British children spend less time outside than prison inmates. Yes, really.

So it's not looking so good for the smartphone. Thirteen years later, COVID-19 is a very real virus whose remedy, offered by health experts worldwide, is to extend the social distancing begun by our phones 13 years ago even further. While this social distancing is necessary at this point to stem the contagion of this virus, in addition to its negative economic effects the psychological and social effects (including those attributable to increased loneliness) must be considered.

Extensive research, including two studies I published recently, has found that loneliness dysregulates: that is, it impairs our ability to self-regulate and behave in ways in which we are later proud.

To discover these means, come up with a few strategies that enable you to separate remote living from loneliness. Talk more with the people you live with and/or by phone with the people you don't. Only use your devices occasionally. When you do, consider innovative means of form- ing more meaningful connections through video chats (and note you can call in to connect with most Zoom and video meetings if you prefer not to stare at a screen). Most importantly, let your phone become, a phone. Call the people you love and care about. Who knows-taking social isolation to an extreme may help us realize the importance of real, in- person connection with others while we still have some of our precious lives left to do something about it.

- Psychology Today


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