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Countering the ills of smartphones

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-09-2017 Biju Dominic

The level of loneliness among the younger generation caused by smartphones, mentioned in my previous article (The Psychological Toll Of Smartphones, Mint, 14 September) surprised many. Social evils do not remedy themselves with time. One needs to specifically work towards solutions to mitigate the problem.

Any solution to the psychological toll of smartphones should accept the truth that the penetration and usage of smartphones will continue to increase manifold. So a Luddite-like response of “let’s ban smartphones” is as foolhardy as the cliched “Life was much better back in the villages; everybody back to the farm” response to modernity.

The core problem caused by the smartphones can be best described as a reduction in social capital. Social capital can be understood as networks of social relations in a society which are characterized by norms of trust and reciprocity and which facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit among members of a society.

History reminds us that the Gilded Age—the last few decades of the 19th century—was a time of very low social capital in the US. The successes of the industrial revolution made millions of Americans leave their close-knit village communities in search of jobs in cities. Millions of migrants too added to the chaos in the cities of US. According to historian Don Kirschner, “these cities were ecstatically repulsive, commercially spastic, culturally balkanized, morally depraved, medically lethal, socially oppressive and politically explosive”.

Every strong social trend creates an opposite and equally strong social trend. The progressive era, a sociological trend that swept the US from about 1870-1920 was a strong reaction to the ideological individualism of the Gilded Age. This sociological reaction holds many lessons for those looking to counter the reduction in social capital caused by the smartphones.

The book Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival Of American Community by Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, has described the various initiatives that were started between 1870 and 1920 that went on to define how social networks should be in-built and maintained so as to increase social capital.

To counter the coldness and selfishness of the industrial revolution, many voluntary associations were started in the late 19th century. Organizations like the Salvation Army, Rotary, YWCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Lions Club, and American Red Cross were all started during this period. The trade union movements during this period provided the much-needed social networks workers could trust and interact with.

This is a time in history where the role of public places in building social capital was first understood. The Playground Association of America was founded in 1906, leading to a surge in construction of community playgrounds across the US. The importance of common areas where the urban settlers could relax and interact too was understood. New York Central Park and Yosemite National Park were built during this time.

The reaction to the evils of urbanization led to a progressive avalanche of policy initiatives. These were not top-down. These were all initiatives that were started by individuals at the local community level that soon spread across the US.

Similarly, we need to invent new avenues to increase the social capital of today’s younger generation. One of the ideal avenues to increase the social capital among our younger generation is the education system. The focus of today’s education system is on individual learning. Our education system should start giving importance to group learning. An individual’s ability to collaborate with others and so efficiently work in a team should be developed from an early age.

The younger generation needs strong causes that could stir them out of the comforts of the personal world created by smartphones. The level of inequality that exists today is the same as in the late 19th century. The philanthropic movement springing up around the world is trying to find an answer to this inequality problem. The younger generation could be made an integral part of this philanthropic movement. Studies have shown that the brain’s reward systems are more active when one is helping others than when one is helping oneself. So, efforts to make a positive impact in the lives of the underprivileged is a dopamine-releasing activity that our younger generation could get attracted to.

The forces of globalization are making their presence felt in the societies around the world. Globalization is also generating a counter trend called culture closure, a trend to hold on to one’s local culture and traditions with vigour. The trend towards culture closure has led to the formation of several fraternal organizations based on one’s cultural roots. Studies are showing that if we can get the younger generation to just to connect to a place, it will help reduce their loneliness.

In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect, Matthew Lieberman establishes that human brains are inherently social in nature and there is a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships. The sharing economy epitomized by the success of Uber and Airbnb is just an indication that we are willing to share many things with even strangers. The fact that the smartphone is at the centre of this sharing economy shows that the problem can actually turn out to be the cure.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm. Comments are welcome at

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