Are The Notifications On Your Phone Disrupting Meaningful Connection?

A few years ago, I turned off all notifications on my phone. This is including Messages, Mail, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, and LINE. And I must say, it’s one of the best things I’ve done for myself.

My friends make fun of me as the person who never answers their phone, or if I do, I’m always at least three days late responding. They’ve learned to call me if they need my immediate attention, and to never take a late message personally. When people first find out that I don’t keep notifications on, they always seem a bit confused as to why. They argue for the immediacy of knowing who responded, when, and what they said, to always be on top of what’s going on in different agendas and relationships. It’s about being up-to-date, connected with those around you, and staying relevant in other people’s lives. While I can understand this logic at first, notifications for me did much more harm than good, especially on my long-term happiness and mental health.

Notifications start out fine. They serve as reminders to open our email or to only check messages when we have something to respond to. Notifications become a problem when we start checking for them constantly, in situations that deserve our undivided attention.

Did so-and-so respond? How is my post doing? Did they send the updates yet?

Notifications may seem like a form of productivity, but they can quickly turn into triggers for digital addiction.

I remember I was having dinner with a friend who I haven’t seen in a long time. She was visiting Tokyo for the summer, and we decided to meet up and go to one of my favorite Japanese restaurants. As we were trying to catch up, bling. The phone’s screen lights up. She glances at it, and then flips it over. I smile politely, and conclude that it’s fine, but the entire time the phone is sitting there on the table, like a third guest, watching over our conversation together. If she was trying to prove to me that she wasn’t going to be reading the messages now, couldn’t it stay in her bag?

The waitress comes over and I begin asking for water, and immediately my friend flips over her phone again to reply to that message that was waiting for her. It only takes a second to ask for water, so I’m left sitting for the next few minutes as she finishes typing up her message. Holding up a finger she justifies, “I’m so sorry, this will only take one minute. I just need to send this message.”

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Our dinner is nice, but the conversation that stemmed from that night was relatively generic. We exchange stories about what we’ve been up to, who we’ve been hanging out with and how we’re doing, and after dinner said our goodbyes. We hugged, promised to see and talk to each other more often, but with the unspoken acknowledgement that we’re probably going to put it off until next year.

These situations are prevalent everywhere, and you’ve most likely encountered more than a few. But why does this keep happening? Especially with good friends who you know you connect with well? For my dinner, it was this third guest—scattering our attention and reminding us that there are other things going on in the world.

It’s quite obvious why the phone at the dinner table was annoying for me, but I doubt that she brings her phone to the table in hopes that it will create meaningful conversation. Studies have shown that phones at dinner time aren’t just rude, but make it less enjoyable for all parties involved. Including the person on their phone. The difference in enjoyment is usually subtle and modest, stirring mostly feelings of boredom or annoyance rather than intense emotions like anger, which is why many people don’t recognize how big of a negative impact it’s having on their experience. People are so used to checking up on their phone, quickly seeing if there are any new updates or messages from others, that it’s an ingrained habit we do mindlessly. If we’re having a bored moment, or we just want to appease our mind of something that’s going on in our life elsewhere, what harm could a quick look do?

But this mindless habit which starts when we wake up, when it begins to bleed into our dinner times, house gatherings, and social events, we find ourselves constantly attached to our phones. The notifications are easy distractions from our reality, and may eventually pull us deeper into digital addiction. They can become triggers packaged and presented in the form of productivity and connection, when in reality they are doing the exact opposite to us, stripping us of the opportunity to connect with the people we are surrounded with in the moment.

How To Build Meaningful Relationships: Removing your temptations and turning off your notifications.

The same friend who I shared dinner with complained to me how she just wants to meet new people and build deeper connections with them. She doesn’t particularly bond with the group of friends she spends time with usually, and felt that she wasn’t gaining any new or exciting experiences. But if she was actively pursuing new relationships and deeper connections with people, why did we just have a dinner where she was only listening to me for a portion of the time?

If you find yourself feeling a bit disconnected from the world and instead attached to your phone a bit too often, I encourage you to pursue mindfulness by purposefully putting down your phone, turning off your notifications, to see how it makes you feel. Try getting in touch with the people you are with in-person, listening to their words and immersing yourself in the moment. By committing yourself to the present, you may open doors that were closed off to you before.

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The next time I met with my friend, when she put her phone on the table, I kindly asked her to put it away. She was a little bewildered, but didn’t protest, and I must say, it turned into a really nice conversation.

Sakiko Ohashi