The smartphone effect

Maybe there is a much more banal reason for the awkwardness that so often manifests itself when individuals who share nearness online meet offline than the availability of the sublime, different settings provoking different memories to be activated or, possibly, our brain: the omnipresence of the smartphone. The smartphone is the go-to place for adolescents to shield themselves from the challenges of the real world. The smartphone is a safe haven in a world that is wrongly perceived by them as dangerous – although this last assessment sounds a bit off while living under the current lockdown.

When we organized our first educational meetings with teenagers in 2011, students let us know that to them the real world is a far more challenging place than the online realm. They explained that in real life one needs to react immediately and spontaneously to unforeseen social situations. And this leads them to experience stress and social awkwardness when offline. Ron Srigley reports similar findings. According to him, students consider direct, unmediated contact even as “rude” because it pierces the protection by the smartphone against awkward moments.

So, probably for individuals who are used to hide behind their smartphones to avoid real-life confrontations, meeting others offline is awkward by definition. This holds true both for strangers and for individuals with whom trust is shared online. What does make a difference is the attitude towards the awkwardness. While strangers provoking awkwardness by making direct contact are perceived as rude, students in our classes over the years stated that they rather appreciated being in direct contact with us, even though it is trying for them. The reason for this is that they feel that our communication takes place in a situation of trust.

The trust factor would explain the courtesy and respect that is observable in addition to awkwardness when individuals who share nearness online meet offline: this is the spill-over consequence from the trust that exists between them online.

The smartphone effect might explain the difference between behavior online and offline – but only for those who are in the habit of using their smartphones as a shield.