Does Solitude “Count” if You’re on Your Phone?
There are better uses of your alone time.
Posted Aug 08, 2019
We're pretty attached to our smartphones. I’m not telling you anything new by pointing out that you, if you're like the rest of us, look at yours something like 52 times a day, whether at work, while driving, or with your family. And I’m not here to make you feel guilty about it; screen time is now simply part of what it means to participate in a technologically advanced society. But we probably don’t think about the possibility that our scrolling and swiping might also be distracting us from ourselves.
In my last post I wrote about how important solitude is for adolescents’ emotional health, but as several readers adroitly asked, is that still true when your teen spends every minute of her alone time on her phone? Is she actually reaping the benefits of solitude if she’s on Snapchat? The same could be asked of us adults, who spend much of our scarce leisure time on our digital devices.
Simply put, does solitude “count” if you’re on your phone?
What the Research Says
Psychologist Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, argues that being alone with your smartphone, especially while engaging in social media, does not meet the criteria for psychological solitude, because solitude is fundamentally inner-directed. So, even though you might be physically alone while reading your Twitter feed or watching YouTube videos, you can’t be said to technically be in solitude. Why not?
Researchers call these types of activities “parasocial,” meaning that even though you’re not face-to-face with others, you’re still engaging in outer-directed social activities. What’s more, we tend to be parasocial when we don’t want to be alone and feel lonely (Greenwood & Long, 2009). This makes sense—when our solitude isn’t chosen, we want to escape from it into television or the Internet.
But the absence of others is what defines solitude and gives rise to its benefits, among them: introspection, creativity, privacy, emotional renewal, self-discovery, spiritual connection. Filling our alone time with online parasocial activities may effectively barricade us from these inner experiences.
If You Want to Feel Rejuvenated, Don’t Pick up Your Phone
One of the biggest benefits of solitude is that it gives us a chance to recharge, especially following a stressful day at school or work. This self-regulating function of solitude is well-known to researchers and to the rest of us—whether you’re a teen with your bedroom door firmly closed or a grown man slipping away to your “man cave,” on some level most of us instinctively seek out time alone when we’re feeling burnt out or emotionally off-kilter. Multiple studies have shown that solitude has an emotionally renewing effect, giving us time and space to sort out our feelings and restore our energy (Larson, 1990).
However, excessive smartphone usage often leads to feeling more stressed rather than rejuvenated. When we’re on social media platforms, we also tend to engage in social comparison: Our Facebook “friends” seem happier, richer, thinner, more popular, and leading way more exciting lives than we are.
Now, to be fair, there are plenty of benefits that come with owning a smartphone, especially when it comes to maintaining close ties with far-flung friends and family, but if you are choosing to head into solitude in order to recharge, you would be better off making a date with yourself… without your phone.
A Solitude Date… with Yourself
You heard me right. Take yourself out on a date! It might sound corny, but research has shown that intentionally making a date with yourself leaves you feeling better (Manalastas, 2011). The trick to enjoying yourself seems to be this: don’t think about yourself as being alone. Rather, think about your solitude date as an opportunity to spend time with a very special companion in your life: you.
According to the research, people who carved out three or more hours to spend by themselves doing something they enjoyed ended up feeling more peaceful, experienced fewer negative emotions, and, not surprisingly, had a more positive attitude about solitude going forward.
So, the next time you crave some me-time or find yourself unexpectedly in a quiet house, welcome the solitude and make it count. (And leave your phone behind.)
Greenwood, D. N. & Long, C. R. (2009). Psychological predictors of media involvement: Solitude experiences and the need to belong. Communication Research, 36 (5), 637-654.
Kim, J-H. (2018). Social media use and well-being. In J. E. Maddux (Ed.) Frontiers of Social Psychology: Subjective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction (pp. 253-271). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Larson, R. (1990). The solitary side of life: An examination of the time people spend alone from childhood to old age. Developmental Review, 10, 155-183.
Manalastas, E. J. (2011). An exercise to teach the psychological benefits of solitude: The date with the self. Philippine Journal of Psychology, 44 (1), 95-106.