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Rewards keep us coming back but rarely satisfy


Are you searching for something? Where exactly do you look? TikTok. Instagram. Your email. Your news feed. There’s something you want to find, but you can’t name it. Something you want to feel, but it’s not easy to identify. Maybe you want relief from the day or an escape from reality. Maybe connection. During the pandemic, many of us needed that.

Most of us don’t reach for our phones with intention. We go thoughtlessly, reflexively, craving the satisfaction we believe the phone will provide. The phone is an accessible retreat, and it has helped us access information and gratification in many ways, helping us forge and maintain the connection. But it has also narrowed the spaces where we seek pleasure and possibility. This shift pre-dates the pandemic, though a year of lockdowns, quarantines, and distancing further limited our engagement with the broader world.

“The sense of possibility that we want to feel in our lives has shifted. Our sense of aspiration, our sense that something could happen. Whatever it is, it now exists on our phone,” said Sherry Turkle, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and author of “The Empathy Diaries.” “There used to be all these places and spaces that held our imagination. … Now more and more we are turning to our phones for those feelings.”

When people pick up their phones, they look for different things. Some people want to feel valued. Some want to feel they have influence. Some search for camaraderie.

“The phone has become a place of finding ourselves,” Turkle said. “We think that’s where the people are. That’s where the people who will appreciate us are. That’s where the people who will admire us are. That’s where the good news is.”

Making phone use ‘a conscious choice.’

In many cases, the phone delivers, which is why we go back, even if often the excellent feeling it provides is relatively fleeting – the laugh at the late-night joke or the boost we get when we read a compliment on a photo. Other interactions with our phones can be more meaningful – it’s where we learn about the job offer or get notes of care after we lose someone or something we love.


The problem is when it becomes challenging to be with ourselves and with others without our phones. When we reach for it without purpose, or when the original purpose, like checking an email, seamlessly morphs into something else – moralizing on Twitter, hate-reading an article, or marveling and then recoiling at something on TikTok.

Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said people engage in more transient, shallow, and ephemeral electronic interactions versus deep, substantial, interpersonal ones.

“We are now looking to static electronic stimuli to generate our feelings more than we’re looking toward human interactions,” he said.


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