The dark side of the screen

In this article Ian Marsh explores how the way we relate to our gadgets is affecting the way we relate to one another – and not necessarily in a good way.

Where is your phone as you read this? Can you see it? Can you reach it? Will you hear its alerts as you read? How would you feel if you could not? If you lost your connection? Or you were somewhere you had to turn it off? What if you went somewhere you had to hand it in – a school classroom for example, or a jury room – and could only get it back when you left? Be honest. On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 10 (completely freaked out), just how uncomfortable do you feel when you are disconnected?

The truth is that many of us are addicted to our screens. Literally. The anticipation of that next message, or post, triggers a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is a key ingredient in our pleasure/reward system and is highly addictive – so we check and recheck and double check – just in case – just to keep the feeling going.[1] In fact, we are so addicted that it seems we are much more connected to our phones than to those we are with; and most of us feel that. Studies show that simply having a mobile device in view (let alone in hand) when we are talking with someone significantly reduces how close they feel to us and how much empathic concern they feel for us.[2] One friend across the table, 200 ‘friends’ in the little box; it is hardly surprising we get distracted.

When it is my device on the table, I probably do not give it a (conscious) thought. I may sense we are not really connecting, but then I am probably too focused on the phone even to notice. If it is yours, I may just have a sense that you are not really paying attention, though my mental chatter will probably soon spin that into your not caring. If I am paying for your time, that does not bode well for your revenue stream. If I came for help, I probably feel let down, anxious, angry even. If we were trying to sort out some issue between us, it is probably already too late. No connection and the shutters come down (again, literally); for me now it is just about me, about surviving in what my brain is telling me has become a hostile environment.[3] I may still be listening, but I am way beyond hearing.

So, maybe it is a good thing that email has not only replaced snail mail, but so many meetings too. That is certainly easy enough to rationalise: it avoids the need to coordinate possibly many busy schedules (who has the time these days?); everyone can say their piece (more or less) when it is convenient to them; and no-one wastes time travelling or hanging around waiting for others. Much more efficient, no doubt. But more effective?

In the social world, it is text (SMS), instant messaging and social media rather than email, but the trend is the same, if not more extreme. In Reclaiming Conversation,[4] MIT’s Sherry Turkle reports a 15-year-old saying that he knows he will have to have a face-to-face conversation some time, but that he has not yet really worked out why. Stop and think on that a while. Sadly, Turkle’s studies suggest he is not atypical of his generation. Young people (and many older ones too, in my experience), seem to find face-to-face conversation messy, scary, beyond their control; so much so they will go out of their way to avoid it – and then rationalise that too.

I understand the desire to feel in control. We all have it to some degree or another. It makes us feel safe, and that is a feeling most of us crave. But conversation is more than a series of monologues. It is an interactive process, a collaboration. If control here means the right to speak, that is something that passes to and fro the whole time, on a basis we are constantly (re)negotiating. Conversation has rules, most of which are never articulated (we absorb them by observing others as we grow) and many of which are cultural in origin (which is why cross-cultural conversation can be so challenging).

Digital exchanges are not like that. Each ‘says’ what he wants and sends it. The other may or may not read it. More likely, he will speed-read it. There is something about screens that demands less attention of us than even the printed page. It is a bit like speaking to someone who is already focused on what they are going to say when their turn comes: they are not listening to what you are saying! Somehow, we feel compelled to reply quickly. We fear we will lose status if we do not.[5] So, quickly it often is, but so often without too much thought.

Although apps give us the illusion of control,[6] the only control we actually have is over what we type (tap?) before we send/post. That is great – the spoken word is so often out before we realise it is the wrong one – but the fact that we can edit does not mean that we do. The desire for control, to express ourselves as best we can, and the (perceived) pressure to respond now, often conflict, and the pressure generally wins; as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has shown, we weigh potential losses twice as heavily as gains.[7] Anyway, editing as we type is not the same as reflecting on what we want to say. Save as draft allows you time to reflect, without losing the utility of the technology, but when did you last use it? Even that is not available on text/messaging services (at least on those I have come across).

In any event, there is a huge difference between focusing on a keyboard and focusing on another person. When we focus on the keyboard, it is all about us, about what we want to say, about the words. Those you may control. You have no control whatsoever over whether anybody else reads those words, or what they may read into them. Even if the exchange continues, you may get few clues as to what they did, because their response will most likely focus on what they want to say. When you are with someone else, there is constant and immediate feedback on the effect your words have – provided, of course, you are open to it.

That is often neither a rational nor a conscious process. What we say may be at the heart of the conversation, but how we say it – the tone, the pitch, the intensity of our voice, and the timing of our speech – carries meaning too, as do our posture, gesture and our facial expression, particularly the eyes. Inevitably, some of us are better at decoding these non-verbal signals than others. Some find them baffling, others overpowering.[8] Disturbingly, primary school teachers report their new charges arriving with no sense that the human face contains meaningful information, and in need of remedial training[9] (screens do make great pacifiers but … ). For most of us, though, when the verbal and non-verbal messages conflict, we nearly always go with the non-verbal. Ideally, we would take those ‘mixed messages’ as a cue to explore further, but that is something too few of us do.

Yes, it can all get very emotional. It is meant to. Like many human attributes, our emotions do not just have one job to do. Their primary function is to goad us into action[10]: fear causes us to be wary, or to flee danger; anger causes us fight, whether for our lives or against some perceived injustice; love (lust?) to mate; and so on. But they have also evolved a social function. However clever our speech, our emotions are part and parcel of the multi-player game we call conversation.[11]

For one thing, it seems that, left to our own devices, we just cannot stop talking about ourselves. It turns out that gives us a dopamine hit too, so maybe it is not so surprising that studies show that between 30% and 40% of our everyday conversation is just that.[12] You can see that would be useful – adaptive, in evolutionary terms – in building the social connections we all depend on to survive, let alone to thrive. But what stops us giving too much away, putting ourselves at risk? Mostly, it seems, non-verbal feedback from the person we are talking to – it may be embarrassment, or disgust, or even anger, but there are plenty of clues telling us when enough is enough.[13]

At least there are when we are face to face. Separate us, and all those clues are lost. Your listener (reader?) may still be bored, or scared, or just too sad to care, but unless she says so (and you believe her) you are unlikely to change what you say or do. Worse, the dopamine still seems to flow but, for some reason, it now seems to cause a spike in our confidence,[14] so we are liable to reveal even more about ourselves than we might otherwise. Worse still, we only bond when we are in physical proximity, and that bonding seems to underlie the empathic response.[15] Without that, the person we ‘talking’ to may not see that what he is saying, or doing, is hurting us. If you have no means of knowing that, how can you care? Just think for a moment about what some (particularly young) people are all too easily persuaded to post about themselves online, and where that can lead.

So, are video-based systems like Skype and FaceTime the answer? The benefit of distance, with the comfort of another face? They certainly give a feeling of greater connection. When I am travelling on business I find that much more comforting than just a voice call, and I think they are great for keeping in contact with colleagues around the world too. They do, however, seem very fertile ground for misunderstandings – perhaps because they lull us into behaving as if we are face to face when we are not? These days, I generally have a rule that anyone on the call can park any subject until our next face to face meeting, whatever the others may want; it has proven well worthwhile.

We do not know exactly how we work out what others are thinking and feeling, but part of it seems to involve mimicking their postures, gestures and expression, either physically or mentally.[16] Small screens do not give us enough information to do that. Even if we have a big screen, we will either have a full body shot – too far away for the detail we need – or, more likely, a head shot, so we are missing posture and gesture.

In any case, we never make eye contact on screen. To give the illusion of eye contact, we have to look at our device’s camera but, if we do that, we are not looking at the face on the screen. If we look at the screen, we get more information, but we are in danger of coming across as if we are not paying attention, perhaps even as shifty, untrustworthy. Either way, our eyes never meet, and many would say (me for one) that eye contact is essential for bonding.[17] Worse, the more we choose to communicate remotely, the less likely we are to seek eye contact when we are with other. Turkle reports that lack of eye contact is associated with depression, isolation and callousness.[18]


That organisations like the Samaritans[19] have been helping people in extreme distress through their telephone helpline for decades clearly shows that it is possible to establish a meaningful connection without. Indeed, a number of therapies are now offered over the phone or online (we men seem to favour the latter for some reason), with notable success. But Samaritans and therapists are trained, and are expecting the sorts of conversations they have. They have a formality that ‘normal’ conversation lacks. Some of us will have a natural preference to avoid the face to face, and the rest of us need to honour that. I do not believe, however, that is the typical experience. The App Generation may report more ‘friends’ and ‘connections’ than their analogue friends and relations, but they also report a tremendous sense of isolation and loneliness,[20] and that cannot be healthy in the long term.


Enough of how we communicate. What about the internet itself? How much of the day are you online? How much of the non-work day? What do you use it for? Streaming music? Videos? Playing games? Surfing and shopping? Social media? I find it a great research tool. I am a complete Amazon junkie – an interesting footnote in one book is soon another order. And Google Scholar was a complete revelation to the writer in me! I do use e-books – Project Gutenberg, in particular, I think is a wonderful thing – but I still prefer the feel and smell of an old fashioned paper book; anyway, I tend to scribble notes in my books. I have to confess, though, that the net is not really a leisure thing for me.

Hypertext too is an amazing thing and, conveniently for those whose fortune lies there, it too is addictive. I say ‘conveniently’ because I do not think for a second that those who invented it knew this at the time, but every link we come across creates a little bit of anticipation, and anticipation means dopamine, so off we go again, clicking from link to link, feeding the habit.


It is no wonder most of us spend virtually no time at all on any given page; it is much more rewarding to move on. Of course, as we do, we get used to skipping from one thing to another. It becomes a habit. Our minds, our brains, become set in that way – Hebb’s Law tells us that neurons that fire together, wire together[21] – and our attention span gets shorter. Yet the ability to attend to someone else, to hold them front and centre in your mind over time, is key to the deep, empathic, listening that makes others feel safe with us; that opens them to hearing what we have to say.

Our service providers go to great lengths to make life easier for us. They harvest enormous amounts of data about us, what we do, what we like, so that they can ensure, so far as possible, that we are not troubled by information about things we do not like – or are unlikely to buy. We readily join in, tailoring our news feeds so that we only hear about things that interest us – and typically from sources that share our world view; no space for (unwanted) shock jocks here.

It may just be me, but I want to hear all views, even (actually, especially) those I regard as marginal, on things that affect me, and I deliberately subscribe to magazines (well, one magazine) that favours views I disagree with. It often makes my blood boil, and I will admit I do not always read every word, but I do make the effort. The alternative, it seems to me, is to dismiss those who think differently than you do as sad, mad or bad. Given the way the recent UK Referendum and US Presidential Election campaigns played out, I suspect that may now be the prevailing view.

Conformity seems to be a feature of online culture. Gardner and Davis’ App Generation,[22] it seems, do not want to see things they disagree with. They need to post stuff, because that is where their social life lies. But they will rarely post things that they do not think will be ‘liked’. ‘Liking’ is acknowledgement, a sign they belong. Not being liked is rejection. Painful. Curiously, being ‘unliked’ (were it possible) would probably be less so; any response (even abuse) often seems better than being ignored; at least it acknowledges existence. Inevitably, if their ‘friends’ do not ‘like’ their posts enough, they run the risk of being ‘unfriended’. Where do they turn then, if their entire circle is online?

There can be no doubt though that, leaving aside the pornography, the dark web and all the fake news, the web is a tremendous resource, offering almost instantaneous access to (almost) the sum total of human knowledge – unless, of course, you are in a ‘not spot’. Indeed, there are those who argue that, with so much information at our fingertips, we should stop wasting time learning stuff, or indeed making our children do so.

But what about all those people who have no interest in 24/7 connectivity, or cannot afford it, or live in those not spots? What happens when there is a huge surge in solar flares, and radio waves do not get through the air so well? Or if a few of our big volcanos erupt and all those satellites cannot talk to us for a while – possibly quite a long while? I recall being in New York during the 2013 power outage, which lasted more than 36 hours. With no power to the mobile (cell) towers, the only phones working were old fashioned land lines. We may be clever monkeys, but our technological infrastructure is incredibly fragile.

More than that, though, it seems that when we have too much information at our fingertips, we get lazy. We stop being curious.[23] Writers know this, particularly mystery writers. Too few clues and we never get drawn into the story. We put the book down. Too many, and we get bored. If we keep going at all, it is just reading; no more. Real ‘page turners’ get it just right. Then they toy with us, leaving false trails, introducing characters that have nothing to do with the story, and so on, before all is finally resolved. All the while, we feel compelled to try and work out for ourselves how it is all going to end. Great composers do the same thing with their music. It is at the heart of good comedy too.

If we are going to deal well with our differences – and let us face it, we have no shortage of them – this is exactly how we need to be with one another. Not bombard them with our personal ‘one right answer’ but give them enough to intrigue, to draw them into your world. Be mysterious, but not a closed book. And be endlessly curious about how they experience the world. Believe me, however close they are to you, whether by blood or affinity, it is different from the way you experience it. In my book, anything that makes us less curious does not bode well for the future.

So just how much time do you spend on the net? Is it where you go when you need some mental down time? It is very easy for us to lose track of time when we are in there. And it does not feel as though it is making any real demands of us, does it? Actually, if your screen really is the last thing you see at night and you (or your child) keeping on going well after lights’ out, you are going to be really tired when you get to work (school) in the morning. The constant stimulation screens give our brains is far more than the most stimulating book – and do not forget, this is addictive, so we are likely keep on going longer. Do not forget either that fatigue does not just affect our ability to pay attention, it reduces memory function as well as inhibiting (among other things) our emotional control and response flexibility[24]; we are much more likely to go off on one, to act out, when we are tired.

But there is more to it than that. It turns out that our brains only go into housekeeping mode – which they need to do regularly if we are going to continue to make sense of the world (and to make sense to it!) – when they are not stimulated, when they go into what is called the ‘default mode’.[25] Even the slightest stimulation, it seems, and we revert to operating mode, and being online, streaming videos, playing games and even listening to calming music (particularly through headphones) are way beyond slight stimulation. We need real mental downtime every day. 24/7 access is a great thing. 24/7 usage is not. Take time just to stand and stare. Daydreaming is good for you!

There is, inevitably, something of a generational issue in all of this. After all, the latest tech is usually the province of the young. Having said that, there are many older people who have taken to the digital age like a duck to water. Equally, I do not doubt there are plenty of young people who are discomfited by the whole thing, but who join in and put up with the pain, for fear of being left out; worse, excluded. Inter-generational conversations have never been the easiest, particularly when they touch on issues of succession and governance, but when the two sides’ communication preferences are radically different they can become particularly challenging.

The key with any inter-cultural dialogue – and each generational group is a distinct culture[26] – is to honour (and be curious about) each side’s preferred ways of doing things and to develop a different way, a third way if you will, that meets the needs of all (so far as that is possible) for those times and places where they interact.

The good news is that, if you do it before things get out of hand, working that out can be a great exercise for promoting family cohesion and harmony: for example, having the youngest teach the oldest what the latest tech can do, and how to use it; having the elders preserve their stories in the most vivid way possible for generations yet to come; recording and sharing the whole family experience – where we come from, why we are who we are, what we aspire to, and so on – in ways that earlier generations could not have imagined.

All this tech can help us do some things better. Indeed, it lets us do some things we could never do without it. But, however wonderful it might seem, like everything else it has its limitations and its side effects, its unintended consequences. That holiday companies are already profiting from ‘digital detox’ breaks is probably the clearest of clues that we already know that. The technology is not going away. We are not going to stop using it. Why would we? But we need to learn to use it – and hopefully design its future generations – mindful of the impact it can have on our lives.

So, make some time to reflect on your, and your family’s, relationship with the digital world.

  • How dependent upon it have you become?
  • Is your phone always in your hand, or on the desk in front of you? How often do you check it?
  • When you want to chat, is your first thought to text/IM? Or do you make a call? Or perhaps even walk down the hall for some real face time? Why do you think you make those choices? How well do they work for you? What do they cost you?
  • How often do you post online? What does it feel like when you get lots of likes? What if you get none? Does that affect what you post?
  • Where do you get your news and views? To what extent does that just reinforce your existing worldview? How does that affect your relationships with people who experience the world differently?
  • When you take the family out to a restaurant, who is on social media, or playing games? Who is checking their emails or taking calls. Who is giving the group their undivided attention? Is it any different around the dinner table at home?
  • How much time do you spend together doing things that involve no digital tech at all?
  • What might you do differently going forward? Remember, digital detox is great, but it could be like that January diet when what you really need is to change the way you eat – for life.

Write down what you are going to do differently in the next seven days. Do it. This is as close to an app as you are going to get for this!

Ian Marsh is the founder and CEO of familydr Limited, based in London, where he works as teacher, coach, mentor, facilitator and mediator to enterprising families around the world, and as consultant to those who advise them.




© familydr Limited, 2017. All rights reserved.

Ian Marsh has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

[1] J Panksepp and L Biven, The Archaeology of the Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (WW Norton & Co, 2012).

[2] S Misra, L Cheng, J Genevie and M Yuan, “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices”, Environment and Behaviour, I-24, 2014. Downloaded from on April 23 2015; and see S Greenfield, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Mark on Our Brains (Random House, 2014).

[3] SW Porges, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation (WW Norton & Co, 2014).

[4] S Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015).

[5] H Gardner and K Davis, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale University Press, 2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] D Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Penguin Books, 2011).

[8] S Baron-Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness (Penguin Books, 2011); and see also M Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Vintage Books, 2003).

[9] I McGilchrist and J Rowson, Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the Best Part of us Struggles to be Heard (RSA, 2013). There is also anecdotal evidence from a number of personal online discussions of employers reporting the same regarding their graduate recruits.

[10] Panksepp and Biven (2012) op. cit., fn1.

[11] P Ekman, Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings (Phoenix, 2004).

[12] DI Tamir and JP Mitchell, “Disclosing Information about the Self is Intrinsically Rewarding”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 109 no 21, May 22 2012.

[13] Ibid; and see S Greenfield, Mind Change: How Digital, Technologies are Leaving their Mark on Our Brains (Random House, 2014).

[14] Turkle (2014), op. cit., fn4.

[15] Porges (2014), op. cit., fn3.

[16] Ekman (2004), op. cit., fn11; M Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How we Connect with Others (Picador, 2008); and see also G Hickok, The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Science of Communication and Cognition (McGraw Hill, 2014).

[17] B Fredrickson, Love 2.0 (Plume, 2013); Turkle (2014), op. cit., fn4.

[18] Turkle (2014), op. cit., fn4.

[19] The Samaritans provide support to those in distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide thought the United Kingdom and Ireland. It operates internationally as Befrienders Worldwide.

[20] Gardner and Davis (2014), op. cit., fn5.

[21] Although referred to as Hebb’s Law, and based on the work of the psychologist Donald Hebb, this phrase was coined by the neuroscientist Carla Shatz.

[22] Gardner and Davis (2014), op. cit., fn5.

[23] I Leslie, Curious. The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it (Quercus, 2014).

[24] DJ Siegel, The Developing Mind: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (WW Norton & Co, 2012).

[25] ME Raichle, AM Macleod, AZ Snyder, WJ Powers, DA Gusnard, and GL Shulman, “A Default Mode of Brain Function”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, January 16 2001, Vol 98 no 2, 676–682.

[26] I Marsh, “Culture, Communication and Conflict”, chapter in C Archer and B Hauser (eds), Family Offices: The STEP Handbook for Advisers (Globe Business Publishing Ltd, 2015).

First published in The International Family Offices journal, Volume 1, Issue 3, March 2017: 45-49 and reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

21 thoughts on “The dark side of the screen

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