Harvard Book Prize 2019: Are you guilty of 'phubbing'?

Chiara Machin-d'Arbela, The Harbour School
Chiara Machin-d'Arbela, The Harbour School |

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Each year, the Harvard Book Prize sends students to the US to participate in the Harvard Summer Programme, a scholarship programme that is an excellent opportunity to experience living and learning in a different culture. This year, 245 secondary schools across Hong Kong and of all band levels took part. Deserving winners are selected for the scholarship based on financial need and the quality of the essay they submit. The students' work reveals a range of perspectives from the young people of our city, and are often moving and thought-provoking.

This year, the theme is based on the book Disconnected by Carrie James, a sociologist and Principal Investigator at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The theme calls attention to the moral and ethical blind spots, as well as the disconnects, in the use of the internet, particularly in social media and peer-to-peer online interactions. It also discusses the need to consider moral and ethical implications of online behavior to foster good citizenship.

Below is one of the winning entries by Chiara Machin-d'Arbela, from The Harbour School, which has not been edited by Young Post.

I’m guilty of “phubbing.” I phubbed my mother so badly last week that she sat me down for a “discussion.” I hope I never phub again. 

She’d been eagerly updating me on a task I’d pleaded with her to help me on, and, not once but multiple times, I’d checked my phone as funny messages from friends buzzed in. I think I even giggled. Looking back I realized that she had paused for increasing lengths of time at each interruption, and that her face had fallen from joy to pain and dismay. That’s because the pain of being phubbed -- when a person with whom you’re in a real-life conversation checks their phone to engage in their online relationships -- is reflexive. Studies have shown that phubbing is akin to social ostracization -- the most destructive form of bullying; or the equally devastating “silent treatment” in relationships. Phubbing can destroy marriages, a relationship where a degree of tolerance is already built in. I immediately extended this to the damage phubbing could cause to other forms of relationships, especially friendships. How many times a day do my friends and I inadvertently phub others? 

I say inadvertently because, while I intended to interact with my smartphone, I had not intended to harm others in doing so. But this is probably worse than intentional harm. It amplifies the demeaning and diminishing nature of the act -- that the other person, whose eyes are trying to hold yours, is so insignificant, so invisible, that you don’t even think to notice the harm you are causing them. 

Apparently, in 2018, over 3 billion people had smartphones globally: almost all of us phub. What does it mean to our ethical standards that we are able to lash each other by a thousand cuts a day at such a massive scale? Without any remorse. Either we learn to ignore the reflexive and destructive pain, or we wither from it. Both are terrible outcomes. Is it any wonder that we tolerate (or enjoy) a Trump tweet, or swipe past (or join) people in India using social media to foment lynch mobs? 

In her book, Disconnected, Carrie James says society urgently needs to develop stronger moral and ethical codes to address abusive online behaviour. She’s right. Rapidly advancing technological innovations often outstrip social norms, causing immense harm as they struggle to keep up. Her concerns focus on the glib misuse of “privacy, property and participation” online. By contrast, phubbing isn’t about the ethical dimension of user behaviour within the online world; it’s about the clash of behaviours between worlds - online and offline. 

Identifying issues is the first step to addressing them. Now that I am aware of the consequences of my offline / online interactions, I try not to phub and am remorseful when I fail. My friends, likewise. Can adults follow? By adding phubbing to her list of concerns, James could help reduce an equally corrosive habit of unethical online use.