Is Your Cell Phone Affecting Your Self-Esteem?

baby blackberrySherry Turkle is the founder and director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self in Massachusetts. In a chapter she published for the Handbook of Mobile Communication Technologies,  Turkle addressed the emerging idea of the “tethered self.” The tethered self, says Turkle, is a relatively new phenomenon, the result of a collision between social networks like Facebook and mobile technology (iPhones, BlackBerrys, etc) that is actually changing the way we think about ourselves. Turkle explains further:
For the most part, our everyday language for talking about technology’s effects assumes a life both on and off the screen; it assumes the existence of separate worlds, plugged and unplugged. But some of today’s locutions suggest a new placement of the subject, such as when we say, “I’ll be on my cell,” by which we mean, “You can reach me; my cell will be on, and I am wired into social existence through it.” On my cell, online, on the Web, on instant messaging—these phrases suggest a tethered self. We are tethered to our “always-on/always-on-us” communication [technology] and the people and things we reach through them.


In 2007, Facebook released its application for download on both the iPhone and BlackBerry. By January 2009, twenty million people had downloaded the mobile Facebook application. This represented a shift in mobile communications. Not long ago, in the dark ages of digital technology, cell phones were used for calling people. Now we use them to play music, plan events, check and respond to emails, text until our thumbs bleed, help us find the nearest take-out pizza, and check our investment portfolio (I just checked—I still don’t have one). With the creation of the downloadable, portable Facebook application, we are now able to carry with us access to each other’s personal lives as well as a means through which to share our own, moment by moment. We became high-tech turtles with mobile technology for a shell; we can now take “home” with us wherever we go. Of course, what’s currently unique to the iPhone and Blackberry platforms will soon be commonplace. It won’t be long before even very basic cell phones have the web-accessing, personal world-consolidating features of an iPhone, and that emerging reality will only increase the always-on, always-on-us trend.
But mobile technology is hardly needed to tether us to our personal networks. There are tens of millions of us who check Facebook several times a day (or more accurately, several times an hour) while at work, at home, on vacation, at church. Moving quickly into the second decade of a new millennium, we are all moving toward a more tethered state. And perhaps more than any other single factor, our heightened ability to be always-on is changing the way we think of and define our selves in both the virtual and real worlds. Let’s look at two ways that being always-on is blurring our sense of self.
First, being always-on reinforces the belief that an invisible entourage follows us wherever we go. Our nonstop connectivity ensures we are always within reach of someone, at least technically, and at least in a way that might cause us to act differently than we would if we knew no one was watching. For example, our status updates are like personal headlines that we post to let others know what we are thinking, feeling, and doing. “Jack is about to go on a date with Diane.” If we thought no one would ever read them, would we be so eager and so unfailing in our status updating? Or to put a twist on an age old question, “If you update your status in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” As we saw in the last chapter, our status updating (and the growing popularity of microblogging that has turned Twitter into such a white-hot phenomenon) is fueled by the notion that we live for an invisible entourage. After getting fired from his job with the Philadelphia Eagles (for posting what the Eagles determined was “inappropriate content” on his Facebook status update), Dan Leone admitted that he shouldn’t have updated his status the way he did. “I was just upset,” he said, “and I let my feelings go.” Of course, the fact that he “shouldn’t have” meant his actions had consequences. Someone really was watching. Indeed, every one of us on Facebook is being “watched” (at least potentially) by someone else. In many ways, that’s part of the website’s appeal. It’s also part of its influence on the blurring “self,” because the more we believe we have an audience, the more likely our behavior will reflect that belief. We will live in response to a thousand imagined voices, rather than in response to our own hearts.
The whole effect can undermine our self-confidence and self-concept. Turkle again:
[Hyperconnectivity] gives us the potential to communicate whenever we have a feeling, enabling a new coupling of “I have a feeling/Get me a friend.” This formulation has the emotional corollary, “I want to have a feeling/Get me a friend.” In either case, what is not being cultivated is the ability to be alone, to reflect on and contain one’s emotions. The anxiety that [people] report when they are without their cell phones or their link to the Internet may not speak so much to missing the easy sociability with others but of missing the self that is constituted in these relationships.



The cultivation of a healthy self-concept is being subtly undermined by the tendency toward always-on behavior. By way of example, Turkle mentions the fact that many kids are getting cell phones at a younger age, a reality that is having an impact their development. The new phone is enabling parents and children to be in touch with one another, but it can prevent the child from having to face certain difficult tasks on their own. “With the on-tap parent,” Turkle observes, “tethered children think differently about their own responsibilities and capacities. These remain potential, not proven.” Likewise, when a young person jumps on Facebook as soon as they cross the minimum age of twelve, they are newly connected to a vast and growing network of “others” from whom they can receive guidance, comfort, and camaraderie. While this is often a positive experience—teens need access to a widening circle of voices in order to make sense of themselves and their world—it can also be potentially harmful. Young people can come to so fully depend on the advice and opinions of others—including parents—that they become stunted in their ability to navigate life on their own.
Of course, this is no less true for adults. For example, many adult users will seek input from others via their status update, effectively instigating their own personal online poll. Two that popped up in my Facebook stream in the last twenty-four hours: “I’m thinking of becoming a brunette. Any thoughts?” and “I really want to get a new motorcycle—what do you guys think of this one? (Craigslist link included)” Of course, most of us don’t poll our online networks before making decisions. The questions posed by my two Facebook friends were simply practical ways of participating in social networking culture. But their informal poll-taking does represent the internal poll-taking we all tend to engage in when making choices on Facebook. Should I post that picture? I wonder what so-and-so would think if I did. Maybe I shouldn’t. We silently guess at our friends’ opinions, hoping to make a choice that the majority would approve of.
This can be a positive thing. In his fascinating book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki makes a strong case for the benefits of access to a large decision-informing audience. Surowiecki argues that individuals tend to make better decisions when informed by a crowd than when they make decisions in isolation, even when they are experts on the matter. Our network of Facebook friends makes for a natural crowd that is easily accessed for use in weighing decisions, and their input may often prove helpful. But, Turkle observes, an ongoing pattern of polling for opinions “invites [us] to greater dependency.” Like a habit-forming medication, we come to rely on more and more of the stuff to get back to “normal.” We come to require more, not less, input from others in order to feel like we’re living as we should. This results in an erosion of self-confidence and a blurring of self-concept. What do we do if we don’t have access to the input of our online legions?

The “voices” of our invisible entourage can drown out the sound of our own hearts. We can find it increasingly difficult to know whether our thoughts, actions, and feelings are our own, or whether they are simply the collective “voice” of our large personal networks. After all, the collective “voice” is so much louder than our own. But what people expect of us and who we really are can often be two different things, and it is increasingly difficult to discern between them as our friends list grows and the “voice” gets louder. As a result, what’s been true for Hollywood celebrities is becoming true for each one of us. We, like celebrities, are faced with the tempting idea that it is better to be liked than to be ourselves. But becoming our authentic self requires that we eventually learn to stand on our own two feet, to occasionally make unpopular decisions, and to forge new paths often despite public opinion. Constant polling and trolling for approval can prevent this, creating a distorted image in place of a clear, authentic self.
A second way that a clear picture of “self” gets blurry is related to the way our always-on tendencies prevent us from being fully present in the moment. In many ways, we are ever-connected to anywhere other than here and now. I recently ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in many months. We had worked together for a time and overcome some difficult challenges together, so I was glad to spot him one night from across a parking lot. I called out to him, “Jeff!” Jeff turned and smiled in recognition. He ran over to greet me. But ten steps from where I was standing, he stopped dead in his tracks. He looked down, reached into his pocket, and right in front of me, silently checked the email on his BlackBerry for about thirty seconds. I was shocked. He explained a moment later that he was “waiting to hear back on a particular project.” I lied and said, “I understand.” The truth was, I felt foolish, wrongly assuming that I had meant more to him than the impending arrival of his next email. In hindsight, however, I can’t blame him. Being always-on naturally prevents us from seeing clearly what is right in front of us.  –excerpt from The Church of Facebook

(“Six Month Old Baby Boy” photo by Beth A. Keiser)

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About jesserice

Speaker | Author | Digital Culture Expert | Sit-Down Comedian

Posted on October 20, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I had to make a commitment to not check my blackberry messages in “off-hours” including family time,soccer matches,etc. Or in church!

  2. It seems that we are looking for constant feedback, looking for someone to tell us what we are doing is right or wrong. Which in effect takes decision making and thinking for our own out the window.
    What is amazing to me is how we can build our identity through social networking. We can be whoever we want online and build a pretty good look. Meeting face to face is different though, you cannot hide things so easily.

  3. Dear Jesse,

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject. You have articulated some of the ideas my husband and I have been mulling for some time and given us some new thoughts on the subject as well.

    One thought provoking quote:

    “As a result, what’s been true for Hollywood celebrities is becoming true for each one of us. We, like celebrities, are faced with the tempting idea that it is better to be liked than to be ourselves.”

    Great read.

    Blessings!

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