What is it about screens that keeps our eyes transfixed and fingers a-tappin'? Psychologist Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of "Alone, Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," explains what keeps us tangled up in tech.

Doll tangled in phone charger cable
Credit: Jamie Chung

Q. Exactly why are we so attached to our digital devices?

A. They provide something our brains really want: the opportunity for what’s called “seeking behavior.” We’re born hunter-gatherers, and in a way, a Google search is like going out and finding a deer to bring home. It activates that instinct and gives you an emotional buzz.

Q. Is technology truly addictive?

A. I prefer a different word: I would say technology is extremely seductive. A smartphone offers something that isn’t like the lure of passively watching TV, and our brains are uniquely vulnerable to it.

Q. Because with TV you’re a watcher, and here you’re an active participant?

A. Yes, it’s a perfect storm. Our brains crave constant stimulation, and these devices allow you to skip over waiting and go straight to scintillating sound bites.

Q. What is it that makes us jump at every ping?

A. It’s that desire to find out who wants you, not really the content relayed in the text.

Q. What’s the fallout of these habits?

A. There’s less tolerance for the boring bits in life. Part of my fieldwork is to stand at stop signs and watch what happens in cars. The moment people stop, they reach for their phones. They can’t be alone with their thoughts. Parents need to show kids that there’s no need to panic if you’re without your phone. If you don’t teach children that it’s OK to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.

Q. Why is it so satisfying to rack up Facebook friends and Twitter followers?

A. As a psychologist, what I hear most often is “Nobody listens to me.” With all these “friends” and followers, you have automatic listeners.

Q. So are these just meaningless connections?

A. They can be meaningful. Social media and texting are great ways to stay in touch. But that doesn’t mean you should live your entire social life online. It’s a useful supplement to face-to-face interaction, not a substitute. With cyber-connections, you aren’t exercising the same emotional competencies that you do in person.

Q. Why has texting become more common than talking?

A. Because it protects people from the possibility of confrontation. There’s a whole generation that isn’t learning how to have a conversation. I asked some kids why they choose to avoid face-to-face communication, and one boy said, “It takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” Without this skill, kids aren’t prepared to negotiate many of life’s bumps.

Q. Do smartphones harm relationships?

A. Yes, if you allow your attention to be swayed. I’ve observed several young adults’ dinner conversations. Say there is a group of seven. Three are engaged at a time. The rest are scanning the group to see if enough people are participating so they can sneak back to their phones. Everyone alternately drifts in and out of the discussion, saying, “Wait, what?” These conversations can’t go that deep. A recent study found that if you place a phone on a table, personal or heavy topics won’t even come up. You wouldn’t want to bring up your mother’s illness if there’s a good chance that you’ll be interrupted and feel hurt. It’s not that people don’t have profound things to say. But we’re stripping away the conditions for saying those things to each other.

Q. Would you say technology is making us dumber?

A. I’m pro-technology. But the digital world can sometimes make us forget what we know about life: that there’s no greater gift than giving someone your full attention. Why are we using these tools in ways that cause us to take our attention off each other? That doesn’t seem smart.