You are sitting alone in your room enjoying a moment of solitude when a friend barges in unannounced and begins monologuing about their overwhelming workload. Or worse, they tell you about the hilarious Buzzfeed quiz they just took.
For most, this scenario is not only undesirable — it’s unacceptable. So why does that kind of intrusion suddenly become O.K. when it’s happening on your phone?
In the digital world, our mental space is constantly threatened by excessive communication. Continuous streams of email and working late hours outside the office can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and internet addiction. Any college student can attest that frequent stimulation from smartphones is unhelpful and makes for unproductive and inefficient work.
But now, the pressure of maintaining constant connection online is no longer limited to professional relationships. Online culture normalizes the erasure of personal space in personal relationships too, and that needs to stop.
What we rarely admit is that notifications on our smartphones often feel like invaders, marching into our realities and demanding our attention. A text from a friend feels rude when we are obligated to reply instantly with the right emojis. Even a useful email becomes counterproductive when we feel obligated to drop what we’re doing and reply immediately.
The problem lies not in the ease of communicating with smartphones, which is central to modern workplaces and relationships, but in the culture that arises from it. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s not an excuse to get rid of the self-isolation that allows us to focus and be creative.
In professional settings, we are expected to be available at any time to quickly edit a Google doc or reply to a group message. Likewise, instead of planning times to meet up with friends, we are expected to be prepared to reply to a friendly message or video chat with little warning. And in case we don’t feel anxious enough already, there are always “Read receipts.”
When physical space is invaded, the body has a visceral response: fight or flight. Even the most extroverted people need mental and emotional space to function, and when we are socially overwhelmed, anxiety triggers a similar mechanism — the desire to just turn the phone off completely, or better yet, throw it out the window and never reply to a group message again.
Physical distance used to be a valid excuse for cutting off social interaction, but when the threat is coming from the device in your back pocket, the personal space we all need is much harder to defend.
So how do we redraw the boundaries without ostracizing ourselves? As is often true, the best defense is a good offense. Start by asking “is this a good time to talk?” before delving into a heavy conversation. If you really need an immediate response, just say please. And for all of our sanity, take the time to think before imposing the trivial details of your life onto everyone you know. Just stop, breathe and send it to your mother instead.
Madeline Lutwyche is a College freshman from Baltimore, Maryland.