Swiping for Answers

Professors from Campbell, Baylor say those who rely on smartphones for meaning, satisfaction in life are mostly finding disappointment 

In a study published in August, researchers at Campbell and Baylor University found that users will be disappointed if they expect smartphones and social media to fill their need for purpose and meaning. In fact, it will probably get worse, according to their findings. 

Dr. Justin Nelson, assistant professor of sociology at Campbell University, and Dr. Christopher Pieper, senior lecturer of sociology at Baylor University partnered to understand the complex relationship between meaning-seeking and technology using the most recent wave of the Baylor Religion Survey. Their research appeared this year in the journal, Sociological Perspectives.

“Human beings are seekers — we seek meaning in our relationships, our work, our faith, in all areas of social life,” Pieper said. “We seek purposeful lives, especially in this era where self-identity construction is so necessary and important. As researchers, we were interested in the role that smartphones — and the media they give us instant access to — might be playing in meaning-seeking.”

The team wondered if the search for meaning is connected to feelings of attachment to one’s smartphone — a possible precursor to tech addiction. In this paper, they used Baylor Religion Survey data to show that while devices promise satisfaction and meaning, they often deliver the opposite. Seeking itself becomes the only meaningful activity, which is the basis of anomie and addiction.

“Our research finds that meaning-seeking is associated with increased smartphone attachment — a feeling that you would panic if your phone stopped working. Social media use is also correlated with increased feelings of attachment,” Nelson said. “What is interesting though, is this association decreases for the heaviest of social media users. While we don’t know how this group uses social media, it might be that normalized use at the highest levels erases feelings of attachment for the individual — as we put it, it would be like saying one is attached to their eyes or lungs.”

Both Nelson and Pieper say their paper relates to classical social theorizing from a century ago by French sociologist Emile Durkhiem, who talked about the “limitlessness of modernity.”  Both say smartphones have opened a Pandora’s box of unlimited searching.

“One of the things that Durkheim said in about 1920, believe it or not, was that modernity would open the door to what he called the ‘malady of infinite aspiration,’” Pieper said. “And this would appeal to people, because it felt like they would have more and more choices, more freedom, endless pleasure and so on. But what it actually would do is probably ruin them psychologically. And so today, we begin the process thinking, ‘I’ll find my purpose or meaning or the group I belong to.’ You had maybe 10 choices then, and today you have 10,000. It absolutely overwhelms a given individual and sends them in the opposite direction.”

A key finding of the study is that the feeling of attachment is highest for those who use social media less often. When users seek solace or connection through their phones in shorter spurts, they might be exacerbating attachment, and the authors theorize, feelings of “anomie” and addiction. 

The professors argue that smartphones themselves may be anomigenic — a word introduced to describe how smartphones may produce anomie because of the unstructured and limitless options they provide for seeking meaning and purpose. The study provides a sociological link to the psychological studies that point to connections between digital device and media use and feelings of loneliness, depression, unhappiness, suicidal ideation and other poor mental health outcomes.

Does this mean that since smartphones have barely been around for 15 years that we are doomed to become even more addicted as technology improves? Pieper thinks that if smartphone attachment gets worse, society will eventually begin to reject the technology. He compared this scenario with society’s rejection of smoking over the last few decades. 

“Before we knew the truth about cigarettes and nicotine, everybody smoked, including your pulmonologist and your nurses,” he said. “An entire generation of young people at that time became basically nicotine addicts without ever knowing what was going on. Now, it’s 40 to 50 years later, and it seems so naive and dangerous and strange to have this kind of wild west approach to chemicals that are going into your body. And I think that’s very similar to what’s going on now, with our general cultural approach to technology. We don’t fully know what it’s doing to us. We don’t fully know the dangers or the benefits. It’s an unstudied, uncharted territory. And that’s why we’re doing this work.”

“[Smartphones] are not just tools, they’ve changed the rhythms of our life,” Nelson added. “We cannot even fathom probably getting in the car without without our phone. But these things have accelerated the problems that, of course, were already there. And that’s where these mechanisms of meaning and purpose really matter.”

— by Billy Liggett | Image: vecteezy.com