Switched on, burnt out
Mobile phones, email, Blackberries - technology has made us available all day,
every day. But at what price, asks Karen Kissane.
Once was a time when telephone business was conducted at desks; formally, in an
office, by people who tended to be fully dressed. Such an old-fashioned concept.
Now, it is possible to find oneself in a toilet cubicle listening to a mobile
phone ring in the next cubicle. Even more remarkably, it is answered by its
owner, who proceeds to hold a dignified conversation with an unsuspecting work
contact - despite the indignity of the moment at her end.
Everyone has a story about the intrusiveness of the mobile phone: of the boss
who rings while his employee is on a family holiday; of the young woman who
embarrasses a full tram by her loud argument with a friend; of train users who
bray into their phones about personal topics ranging from their love lives - "I
said to him, I said . . ." - to the state of their innards - "Yeah no, the
doctor reckons . . ."
For some, the constant contact offered by a mobile can become an emotional
umbilical cord, and their relationships with their phones can compete with their
real relationships. Sydney organisational psychologist Grant Brecht tells of one
couple who came to see him at the wife's insistence. They had taken a "holiday"
together, only to have the husband bring along two mobile phones and spend at
least six hours a day talking about work on them. "But my wife is my first
priority," he told Brecht in the first session.
What price this noisy revolution, with its demands for everyone to be available
everywhere, at every moment? How do we pay for the convenience of being able to
keep tabs on the kids while we are at work, and tabs on work while we are with
the kids? What is happening to solitude, attentiveness, and the boundaries
between the public and private spheres in the age of mobiles and Blackberries,
SMS and email?
One price is a lessening of "down time". James Katz, in his book Mobile
Communication: Private Talk, Public Performance, warns that perpetual contact
means: "Those who treasure respite may find themselves pressured to replace
otherwise excusable isolation with productive tasks. Once, being on board an
airplane excused an executive from having to interact with colleagues. No more,
for the fax and phone even follow at six miles high." Worldwide, he says, more
people now own a phone than a TV.
The inability to detach from the workplace, whether the pressure comes from the
individual or the employer, is a factor in the steady rise of anxiety disorders,
Brecht says: "People are burning out with the pressures of work and not being
able to get away from it."
Burnout involves emotional exhaustion, a feeling of lack of accomplishment
despite one's achievements, and a resentment of clients and colleagues, who come
to be seen "as a pain in the butt, another source of pressure".
Long work hours are also inefficient. Brecht says English research found that
people can work at 100 per cent efficiency for 45 hours a week. The next 10
hours they worked, they fell to 50 per cent efficiency; for any hours after
that, 25 per cent efficiency. He says workers who are always available on the
mobile and who ring overseas at all hours of the day and night to check
international markets "work hard, but not smart".
Leisure time is also increasingly important because the pace of work has
increased; letters that required action took days to arrive, but emails and text
messages demand attention within minutes. "People need time to process the
bombardment of communication."
There is also the question of what electronic communication does to the quality
of interactions; does it increase the likelihood of being in touch with
everyone, but intimate with no one? Psychologist Evelyn Field says, "It's not a
good trend because it doesn't improve the quality of the friendship or
relationship. It just becomes more 'busyness'. People can be very busy while not
doing anything, and people can be communicating electronically and not getting
closer, just doing it for the sake of it. It's almost as if it's a defence
She points out that electronic communication is limited because 90 per cent of
human communication is non-verbal: "Body language is 55 per cent, 28 per cent is
voice, and only 7 per cent is words." Shy teenagers who focus largely on
computer communications "miss out on what you would feel, hear, smell, sense,
pick up in your gut instinct. It's not good for the development of social
In workplaces, adults are doing the same thing, Field suggests: "Get off the
computer and walk next door and say, 'Look, I was a bit upset when you said that
about my report, what did you mean by it?' instead of sending some flame email.
I think we are losing that ability to confront, or to say, 'That was really
nice, I appreciated it.' "
Both Field, author of a book called Bully Busting, and Rosalie Pattenden, a
senior counsellor with Relationships Australia, have found that electronic
communications are being enlisted by bullies and obsessives in pursuit of their
quarry. Field says teens can sit in their bedrooms and send nasty messages to
peers about which their parents know nothing.
Pattenden says: "In family violence, when I am working with a couple where he
has become obsessed and jealous; she will turn on her phone to find 33 messages
from him. He just keeps ringing and ringing. It has given people with very poor
personal boundaries an opportunity that wasn't there before to harass people."
Even for normal families, though, the intrusiveness of the mobile can have
negative consequences. US researcher Noelle Chesley, from the University of
Wisconsin, has studied the way information technology blurs the boundaries
between work and family. Following an analysis of data about 1958 people in a
"career couples" study, she concluded that there was no evidence of negative
consequences of computer use.
But "persistent communications use . . . is significantly linked to increased
distress and decreased family satisfaction, as well as increases in negative
work-to-family or family-to-work spillover in individuals". Chesley also found a
gender difference in the consequences of mobile phone use: both men and women
said it resulted in work spilling over into family time in ways that were
destructive, but it was only women who reported that family-related calls
spilled over into work in ways they found stressful.
Chesley suggested this might not be such a problem for the next generation:
"Teenagers expect to be connected 24/7, and tend to be avid and enthusiastic
users . . . The question of 'blurred boundaries' may become an irrelevant one
for the next generation of workers, spouses and parents because they cannot
imagine life any other way."
Clare Lloyd, a PhD student at the University of Newcastle in NSW, is researching
how Australians aged 18 to 35 use their mobile phones. She says the mobile phone
is linked to their sense of agency in the world, their identity, and their
social power and influence: "I've heard people say when they get a text message,
'Somebody loves me!', just because someone is thinking of them. A quick
emotional response happens that links clearly straight into their sense of
Is this why teens who can blithely ignore a ringing landline phone will leap to
answer their own mobile? There is a greater sense of urgency about answering a
mobile, Lloyd says: "If I don't want to answer it, I have to put it under a
pillow. If you hear it ringing, you've got to respond. For a start, it's because
it's your ringtone; the home phone is for a number of people, but because your
mobile phone number is not publicly available, you know they are trying to get
She agrees that "there is a silent time we have less of" now, but points out,
"this is not forced upon us; we choose it".
Lloyd does have a small hankering for what used to be. At 29, she is old enough
to remember life before the mobile explosion. She remembers when travelling
overseas meant the only contact with everyday life was picking up the occasional
letter from home at poste restante: "There was a real sense of escape; you got
away. Now, when you ring somebody to say 'Would you like to have coffee?', they
might tell you, 'Actually, I'm standing under the Eiffel Tower.' "
The mobile phone is likely to become more, rather than less, indispensable.
According to Chris Althaus, Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association
chief executive, Australia has 18 million subscribers - "Saturation is in the
mid-90s" - and the coming generations of phones will have so many features
"there will be almost nothing you can do on your computer that you can't do on
your mobile phone". This will include, for example, scanning your mobile over a
parking meter to pay for your parking.
As for feeling invaded, "at the end of the day, you can hit the on-off button",
Althaus says. Brecht's advice is to leave your mobile at home when you go on
In the pithy phrasing of generation Y and its phone junkies: "Yeah, right."