By KEVIN TAN
WHENEVER Lim Wei Ze, 18, and his friends from secondary school hang out, they have a simple rule – Disconnect to connect.
Tired of their friends constantly tapping away on their smartphones instead of having actual conversations, they instituted the rule a few months ago so that they all have to disconnect from their phones whenever they’re having a meal together, or pay 10% of the bill.
“Unless there’s an urgent call coming in, we usually don’t pick up our phones – even if there is an incoming call or text notifications (SMS, Facebook, Twitter, etc.),” he said.
So far so good for the friends’ little experiment, a practice some in the United States are now calling “phone-stacking”. None of Wei Ze’s friends have had to pay the “fine”, there has been no sign of smartphone withdrawal symptoms, and they’re all feeling closer than ever.
“I think it’s helped us get to know each other better, because words alone (on a smartphone screen) can’t express how we feel. You have to express it in person, say it face-to-face,” said Wei Ze.
It’s a simple solution to what is fast becoming a global epidemic – smartphone addiction, the disease that’s turning young people the world over into intellectually-detached zombies who are constantly staring emptily at bright, shiny objects and who only respond in “OMGs” and “LOLs”.
Smartphones, with their social media applications, games, high-quality cameras and god-knows-what other functions these days, are increasingly permeating our social interactions. It’s fine if you are taking pictures together over a meal, but what about sending SMSes at the dinner table, or checking on your Farmville crops over coffee, or talking about how fantastic your meal is with everyone else on Twitter, but not the person sitting right across you?
According to a global survey conducted last year by McCann Worldgroup, more than half of young people aged 16-22 said they would rather give up their sense of smell than give up their technology. That’s right. They’d rather be able to check their Twitter feed or Euro 2012 updates over the dinner table than actually be able to smell their food.
Other statistics online say that one in five mobile phones are now smartphones, and people check their phones an average of 34 times a day – not because they have to, but because it’s a compulsion. Forty-two per cent of teenagers say they can now type SMSes with their eyes closed.
So how exactly does this “phone-nomenon” affect Malaysian youth, one of the highest social media users in the world? Are our young people losing the ability to hold a proper conversation? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Is this the first step towards all of us getting hooked up to The Matrix?
First up, let’s see just how addicted Malaysian youth can be to their smartphones.
It might come as news to many, but Twitter actually has a daily limit to how many posts a user can make in a day – 1,000 tweets. College student Khairunnisa Sopirman, 21, has reached that limit. Several times.
“I post about 500 to 1,000 tweets a day,” said Khairunnisa, 21, with a chuckle. “It’s just a habit to tweet whenever I’m alone or bored. I tweet what I’m doing and what’s on my mind.”
Although she feels the need to check her phone every five minutes, Khairunnisa understands the importance of having good company, and being good company: “I would feel really left out if my phone isn’t with me, but I try not to tweet too much when I’m with friends.”
Danial Ariff, 20, posts an equally impressive 200-300 tweets a day with his smartphone, but he tries to achieve a balance between spending time on social media and spending time with friends.
“I don’t tweet or play around with my phone when I’m hanging out with friends. I don’t think it’s appropriate and it beats the purpose of hanging out in the first place,” Danial expressed.
For boarding school student Alia Abu Bakar, 18, the problem is definitely getting out of hand.
“It’s already rare for us to be able to go out, because boarding schools have strict rules, but when we do get to hang out, everyone ends up playing games on their phones!” she exclaimed.
“What’s the point of meeting up? Games, Twitter and Facebook are leisure stuff. You shouldn’t do it when people are around.”
And you should definitely not do it at a friend’s birthday party, as Liew Shyh Jin, 18, would tell you.
At her last birthday party, which was also meant to be a secondary school reunion, Shyh Jin invited all her friends over to her house.
“Instead of hanging out and celebrating, everyone was just playing Facebook games,” she said. “We wanted to try the whole phone-stacking thing, but my friends are all so hooked to their phones they just weren’t interested in trying.”
On the other hand, there are also young people now who meet up with the seemingly expressed objective of connecting using their smartphones – the “tweet-up” gangs.
According to Khairul Anwar, 26, the person behind the OctTwtFest last year that brought 5,000 Twitterers together, tweet-ups are events where people from a certain Twitter community get to meet up “offline”.
They can range from small-scale gatherings of a bunch of friends who met on Twitter through some kind of common interest, to large scale festivals like OctTwtFest.
Naturally, most of the people you’d see at these tweet-ups would be there talking and chatting with their smartphones in hand, posing for pictures and updating their followers.
For Khairul, a social media manager by profession, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the culture, and he believes it can actually help encourage better social interaction.
“I met my girlfriend through a tweet-up and apparently, many others did too! I think tweet-ups can be a very healthy culture,” he said.
Dr Rosila Bee, a lecturer from Universiti Malaya who specialises in sociology, anthropology, and ethnic relations, says that teenagers are now so obsessed with their smartphones, their attention spans are starting to become shorter.
“This affects their listening skills, which are essential for face-to-face communication,” she said, adding that one only needs to see how often her students reach for their phones during lectures for proof of the decreasing attention span of this generation.
While social networking can obviously have its benefits for those in the working world, losing essential inter-personal skills can also put you at a disadvantage, for instance, when you are attending work meetings or sitting for a job interview.
Rosila explains: “First impressions are formed based on your person as a whole – the sound of your voice, your body language, your facial expressions. These all form what you are trying to say, not just words.”
But it’s not all just about giving out a positive impression. Being starved of face-to-face interaction can also affect one emotionally.
“Many people tend to hide behind this technology, ranting and complaining on social media instead of dealing with the issues they’re facing. It is bad if they hide behind social media because this is when face-to-face human communication is needed most.
“Non-verbal communication is important, just to have that human presence, that human touch,” she added.
Don’t blame the tech
At the end of the day, Rosila believes that smartphones aren’t to blame for these rising problems with social interaction. The users are the ones that need a good long look in the mirror.
“The technology itself isn’t bad. It is how users are responding to the technology that’s the problem,” said Rosila. “There are many positive aspects to the cell phone, which is an essential tool today. It is the users that need to learn how to use it better.”
Rosila explains that the kind of obsession we’re seeing over smartphones these days is just like what we’ve seen with television and couch potatoes; but you can’t blame smartphones for ruining social interaction any more than you can blame the TV for rising obesity rates.
“When dealing with cell phones and technology, the most important thing is to control and be in charge of the technology, rather than the technology controlling the user.” said Rosila.
“Once a person is obsessed about something and is controlled by it, it is addiction already. That person might be a ‘phone-aholic’.”
In fact, smartphones and social media can actually help certain people improve the way they interact, especially those who struggle with inter-personal communication.
“Social media is a good platform for people who are reserved and have low self-esteem to express themselves and to communicate. However, if a person starts to use social media as an escape from social problems, then it is very unhealthy,” she said.
Tweet-up organisers like Khairul Anwar often use their events to promote good causes as well. Utilising the power of social networking, tweet-ups have been used to help raise funds for orphanages and old folks’ homes in Malaysia.
“Today, you can do so many things just with a smartphone,” said Khairul. “But people who use it wrongly may end up being ‘anti-social’. Social media is actually good for social skills as it is very interactive. Use social media to practise social skills, not to neglect it, or you’re missing out on the whole point of social media.”