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Generation smartphone

Lives on (the) display

München, 11/09/2016

Bent on conserving happy moments, smartphone users forget to experience them, says LMU’s Sarah Diefenbach, an economics professor at LMU. Together with Dr. Daniel Ullrich, she is studying the impact of digital media on our emotional lives.

Seeing life solely via the display? A crowd awaits the appearance of the stars at the premiere of a Hollywood blockbuster. (Photo: John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A romantic island shore in the tropics … Click! Waves break with a seductive swish on the beach … Click! The setting Sun approaches the horizon … Click, click, click. Nowadays, many people have no time to enjoy positive emotions because they are intent on capturing with their smartphones the scenes that provoke them. – The photos are immediately posted on social networks, and the magic of the moment itself goes for nothing. “The point is to earn as many likes as possible – that’s what boosts one’s ego,” says Sarah Diefenbach (34), Professor of Economic and Organizational Psychology at LMU. She believes that “in our efforts to record, post and share positive emotions, we are in danger of losing the capacity to experience them directly.” In order to understand this puzzling development, she set out to elucidate the psychological mechanisms behind it.

Diefenbach and her colleague Dr. Daniel Ullrich, a researcher in media informatics at LMU, became aware of the phenomenon while on holiday on Tenerife. For example, one evening they were looking forward to enjoying the spectacle of the subtropical night sky, together with other holidaymakers. – But members of the group were soon reaching for their glowing iPads, and all hope of undisturbed contemplation of the wonders of deep space was brought to nothing. On a cruise along the coastline of La Gomera, passengers reacted to the appearance of frolicking dolphins by grabbing their mobiles – and from them on, they only had eyes for their phone displays. As a direct result of such experiences, Diefenbach and Ullrich co-authored “Digital Depression: How New Media are Changing our Capacity for Happiness.” The 240-page book is devoted to the inner life of the smartphone generation – for example, their mornings at the breakfast table. As Diefenbach points out – with a chuckle -- not so very long ago, anyone who left the table every 4 minutes to check the letter box would have been regarded as ‘a suitable case for treatment’. “But if such grotesque behavior is occasioned by mobile digital technology, everyone suddenly finds it perfectly reasonable.” Of course, in the good old days, she adds, Dad always buried his head in the morning paper – not exactly the height of politeness either. “In the latter case, however, it was clear to all that Dad was now occupied and, in a sense, no longer present.” Devotees of new media, on the other hand, are constantly eying their phones without really being aware that they are in thrall to the thing.

Social networks are like slot machines
Diefenbach compares social networks with slot machines, with the classical (and now digitally refashioned) one-armed bandits in the casinos of Las Vegas: Most of us fret over the waste of time, Diefenbach says, but the erratic rewards – likes, or every so often an interesting piece of news posted by a friend on Facebook – are enough to draw us back to the site again and again. Models of learning have demonstrated that variable and unpredictable reinforcement is an especially effective way of ensuring that the subject will come back for more. The problem, however, is that the reward must be increased every time in order to induce the same level of positive emotion. “People post things on social network in the hope of receiving positive feedback,” Diefenbach explains. “And after a while, two likes in response to a post are no longer enough.” Indeed, much of what people experience nowadays becomes emotionally significant only after it has been shared with friends on social networks, she avers – face-to-face interactions with partners are becoming less important. Conversely, those who respond to posts they find interesting tend to ask themselves why their own lives seem so much less exciting – which is of course a fallacy, because they only get to see the snapshots that make the other guy look good.

To conclude that those with the highest numbers of likes lead happier lives would, however, be equally fallacious. For it is far more likely that a majority of those who upload photos and accounts of their ostensibly happy experiences are those who feel underappreciated. “Those who are in greatest need of approval will use this channel to find it,” Diefenbach explains. Studies, however, have shown that, in the long term, this hope will be disappointed. Moreover, people with a low level of self-esteem are unlikely to be highly skilled in the art of self-promotion – and so are trapped in a vicious circle. In their book, the authors state that the very fact that many of the photos posted on Instagram are so much more effective than others induces some users to deliberately change their habits. “It is difficult entirely to avoid the impact of unflattering comparisons,” as Diefenbach points out. Indeed, she fears that fewer and fewer people will have the confidence to assert their views online in future. When everyone feels compelled to comment on every topic, the tone of the debate inevitably becomes less civilized and the risk of provoking a shit storm increases.

My real partner is my phone’s display
In Diefenbach’s view digital depression is also affecting our personal relationships. The goodnight kiss is on the way out, she says. Research has shown that, for many people, the smartphone is the last thing they interact with before falling asleep at night. Meanwhile, South Korea reports the highest incidence of internet and smartphone dependence worldwide. – And there are those who devote more attention to photographing what’s on their plates than conversing with their partners. Admittedly, there have always been couples who preferred to eat together in mutual silence. Today, however, the smartphone is such a tempting distraction that its very accessibility is a barrier to the development of anything more than a superficial conversation. In fact, apps are now available in Asia which are designed to remind one to rejoin the conversation. Nevertheless, smartphone refusniks are not automatically happier than their addicted contemporaries. And of course social networks can strengthen contacts with old and new friends.

Indeed, “Digital Depression” should not be understood as an attack on new media per se. “Our goal is not to preach, but to entertain readers and stimulate them to reflect on how they use the media,” the authors say. Both refer to an “invitation” to consider whether or not one’s own interactions with new media actually do one good. “Anyone who fishes for his phone every time his mind is momentarily unoccupied is missing an opportunity to focus on what it is in front of him or is undermining his own capacity for independent thought.” So is it bad manners to sneak a peek at one’s phone when one’s escort has to step out for a moment? “Of course not,” says Diefenbach with a grin. “That’s OK -- as long as one isn’t engrossed in writing an SMS when she comes back!” David Lohmann

Professor Sarah Diefenbach studies the consumer experience and the psychological aspects of the design of interactive products. Dr. Daniel Ulrich earned his PhD at LMU and now carries out research in the field of media informatics.