Cal Newport has spent the past few years studying exactly what society’s growing reliance on smartphones means for our health, well-being, relationships and even career success in order to develop strategies aimed at helping people reduce their screen time and become more mindful about technology.
What he learned over the course of writing his new book, “Digital Minimalism,” is that “Gen Z has the worst relationship with technology right now,” Newport tells CNBC Make It. As the first members of Gen Z graduate college and begin looking for full-time jobs this year, they may find dealing with bosses and coworkers, especially ones from previous generations, tricky.
“We’ve created a generation that spends more and more time interacting digitally in physical isolation,” says Newport. “They’ve largely transported their social existence from the real world into the digital.”
But texts, tweets, Instagram likes and Snapchat streaks don’t deliver the same payoffs as a face-to-face conversation or a traditional phone call. “Our brain has evolved for real world social interactions and it doesn’t understand what’s happening on the screen,” says Newport. “So as far as it is concerned, you’re not really talking to people that much. You’re lonely.”
That disconnect can led to serious problems. Depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide are all rising rapidly among the members of Gen Z, according to a report from the American Psychological Association. Smartphones may be only partly to blame for such feelings as other factors, such as gun violence and sexual harassment, are also causes of stress.
But nearly half of Gen Z say social media makes them feel judged and 38 percent feel bad about themselves as a result of social media use, the report found. In addition to negatively impacting their mental health, heavy smartphone and social media use can also hurt them in the workplace.
“What became clear to me when I was researching my book is that human socializing is very, very hard. There’s large amounts of our neuronal infrastructure that is focused on the really subtle act of sitting in a room with someone and actually having an interaction,” says Newport. “Mastering this skill is hard and requires lots and lots of practice.”
From the time we are born, our brains are hard at work building this skill, trying to understand all the ways humans communicate, be it through words, body language, tone or intonation.
“Gen Z does most of its socializing digitally without any of those cues, so they’re losing most of this practice,” says Newport. “The impact that we’re starting to see in the workforce, and MIT professor Sherry Turkle I think documents this really well in her recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” is that you have more and more young people who are very uncomfortable with basic human interaction because they haven’t practiced it.”
Sitting down across from a boss to discuss a pay raise, a problem with a project or a mistake, becomes an even scarier proposition for Gen Z than it is for most workers, because of the anxiety that can set in around having to talk in person, adds Newport, who see younger people respond by trying to move all communication back online through email or platforms like Slack.
“If you make email or text your primary way of communicating with people, you lose all of the rich nuance that you get by actually sitting with someone and hearing their voice and seeing their body language. We then get misunderstood or misunderstand someone else because we try to extrapolate from emojis and exclamation points if this person is mad at me? Are they happy? Are they being sarcastic?” says Newport. “It’s not good at all for workplace cohesion. It can really affect both happiness and productivity.”
But there’s a simple fix for all of this: Put the phone down and start a conversation with your mom, a neighbor, the guy sitting in the waiting room next to you.
“If you spend a lot of time on your phone and you want to succeed, let’s say in a job interview or in the workforce in general, embrace conversation, even if it’s uncomfortable,” says Newport. “Go sit down with people and actually talk face-to face.”