The Challenge of Developing Meaningful Relationships in the Age of Distraction


My dental hygienist’s dexterous fingers were canvassing around inside my mouth. Diana went on a tirade about the countless hours of her life she had wasted playing Candy Crush Saga and checking Facebook on her phone. 

At least four times she punctuated her story with the same statement: “If I had used that time to do something tied to a larger purpose, I could have accomplished something great. I’ll never have that time again.”

Time Never Returned

Carolyn, a twenty-three-year-old events coordinator in Cape Town, South Africa, also shared her regrets with me about spending so much of her life online:

When I was in high school, I was more worried about how many friends I had on my Instagram account than actual in-person friends. I felt the more Likes a picture received meant the more popular I was. Looking back at it now, I regret it because it was not until university when I finally started making in-person connections rather than online. Focusing my time on social media made me waste time and energy. Now, I like advising my younger sisters to not make the same mistake as me and have more human interactions and connection.

I think we all—myself included—can relate to Diana and Carolyn. Many of us intend to take a short break by playing Candy Crush Saga or checking social media or doing something else online. We unwittingly make this choice without realizing we’ve stepped into the fox’s den.

The Brogrammers Await

Inside our phones, tablets, and laptops reside today’s foxes: thousands of brogrammers whose job objective is to keep you there for as long as humanly possible, engaged in activities most of which hold very little importance to you in the long term. 

Tristan Harris, CEO of the Center for Humane Technology, once remarked, “You could say that it’s my responsibility to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

In many ways, the greatest challenge of our generation is to develop what I call Compassionate, Meaningful, Sustainable Relationships (“CMSRs”) in the face of these unprecedented technological distractions and wrest our attention back from the app developers whose performance reviews depend on keeping it.

To Locate Is Not to Retain

It’s not going to be easy. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, describes the digitally mediated cognitive shift affecting our minds:

Dozens of studies point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning…. What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.

Since the advent of the Internet, the ability to retain information has taken a back seat to the ability to locate it. Ask many teenagers today to name the capital of Belgium or the first president of India and they won’t be able to tell you now, but they will in ten seconds.

The upside is that two decades ago most teenagers wouldn’t have been able to identify the first president of India either now, in ten seconds, or ever. Perhaps a belated digital assist is better than nothing.

The downside is that our attempts at developing meaningful relationships are now punctuated by so many digital assists—Google information retrieval to accentuate the topic at hand, also known as “phubbing” (phone snubbing the other person)—that we no longer connect. 

Reclaim Your Life

Here are three strategies I share in my book Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age that you can implement to be in charge of your phone rather than allowing it to continue another day as your master.

Take notifications off your phone | Strip app developers of using sounds and popup messages to control you.

Set your phone to Grayscale | A University of Rochester study has found that men find women more sexy and attractive when their photo is offset with a red rather than a white, green or gray background. Similarly, when a woman is wearing a red rather than a blue shirt, men are not only more sexually attracted to her, but indicate they would be more likely to ask her out and would spend more money on her on a date. The effects of color on your brain have not escaped your friendly neighborhood app developers. Relegate your phone to its proper role as a bland tool for coordinating your day rather than a colorful, iridescent alternative to the real world.

Decide how often you will check your most addictive apps and then move them to your last screen | The brogrammers use proximity to manipulate how you spend your day. This is a wonderful strategy to help you reclaim your life from them.

Author Bio:

Anthony Silard, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Leadership and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Leadership at Luiss Business School in Rome and the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership at Tecnológico de Monterrey. He has provided leadership development coaching and training to thousands of CEOs and senior executives of Fortune 100 companies, small businesses, and the world’s largest nonprofits, including GE, Disney, Nokia, Bank of America, IBM, CARE, Save the Children, and the American Red Cross. He has also coached political leaders, including G-20 cabinet ministers.

Anthony has taught leadership at various universities around the world, including IESE Business School, Claremont McKenna College, California State University San Bernardino, the Monterrey Institute of Technology, INCAE Business School, and the International University of Catalonia and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of California at Berkeley, George Washington University, Cal Poly Pomona, and ESADE Business School. He has received numerous awards for his work, including Harvard’s Robert F. Kennedy Public Service Award, was named Visionary of the Year by the PBS series The Visionaries, and was featured at the Presidential Summit for America’s Future and America’s Promise.

Anthony holds a PhD in leadership from IESE Business School, which he received with First-Class/Excellent Distinction, a Master’s in Public Policy focused on leadership from Harvard University, and a BA from the University of California at Berkeley. He also served in the Peace Corps in Kenya for two years. Anthony is CEO of the Global Leadership Institute and President of the Center for Social Leadership. He lives with his wife and two children in California.

Leave a Reply Cancel reply