Facebook's new "Home" family of Android apps and software offer a rich and engrossing experience for those who love Facebook, and it could help Facebook's bottom line. But I worry that the new phone -- along with the already ubiquitous mobile access to Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and email -- will be one more incentive for people to pay less attention to those around them and more attention to friends, colleagues and even strangers who may be nowhere in sight.
When you pick up the new HTC "Home" phone or another Android phone equipped with the new software, the social networking service and its messaging services are, literally, in your face. While that can be a good thing -- especially for heavy duty Facebook enthusiasts -- it can also be yet another way to distract people from what is happening in the real time and space they're in at the moment.
Of course, you don't need one of these Facebook-on-steroids phones to be distracted. There are plenty of existing smartphone apps that notify us when friends or colleagues are nearby, and others that interrupt us the moment a friend posts a tweet or message on Facebook. I use such apps on my phone, but turn off beeps or vibrations when new tweets, emails or Facebook messages arrive.
Even many old fashioned "feature phones" offer texting, email and social apps. And long before cell phones, some people were unable to ignore a ringing phone, even if it meant interrupting dinner or an in-person conversation. But with this new phone and software, Facebook is taking distraction to a new level.
A couple of years ago, I sat at a restaurant across from a large group of 20-somethings. Of the 15 or so people sitting at the table, at least 10 of them were texting, checking email or using apps. I wondered why they bothered to go out to dinner together.
Although it annoys my wife, I too sometimes text or check email, Facebook or Twitter when I'm eating dinner or otherwise interacting with friends, family or colleagues. I'm still married and gainfully employed, but it causes me to wonder where to draw the line between acceptable use of technology vs. excessive or compulsive use. So I consulted experts in the fields of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Both confirmed that there is a range or spectrum of sorts between "normal" and excessive or compulsive use of mobile technology,
Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the International OCD Foundation said both intent and outcome are important factors.
"If a sports editor checks scores several times a day, it might make sense," he said. But if it's not a job requirement and you do it so often that it "interferes with your work, your relationships and your day-to-day functioning," it could be an unhealthy compulsive behavior.
Szymanski said that norms and commercial pressure can affect behavior. He gave the example of how Purcell and Lysol promote the widespread use hand- sanitizing dispensers. That's helpful for the companies' bottom line and does help prevent the spread of colds and flu, but it can also reinforce the obsession of those with a disorder that makes them feel compelled to constantly wash their hands.
Likewise, some users may find it helpful that Facebook puts social media on the home screen of its phone. But for others, it could heighten the compulsive tendency to check their messages and newsfeed so often it interferes with their social and family relationships or their jobs. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with hand sanitizers or social networking phones but, like many things, they can be used excessively or inappropriately.
Robin Maier, a Tampa-based licensed clinical social worker, who has blogged about ADD and texting, worries that excessive messaging can "affect personal relationships." In an interview, she said she sees patients for whom it's a serious problem and that some of her teenage patients say that they have teachers "who answer their phones and text all day long," when they should be focused on teaching. Like Szymanski, she said the line between acceptable and inappropriate use is determined by whether or not it is interfering with life, work or study and relationships.
Both Szymanski and Maier acknowledged that texting -- even while with other people -- is becoming a norm, especially among teens and young adults. But just because it is common and socially acceptable doesn't mean it's not disruptive of relationships, especially when taken to an extreme.
At the news conference unveiling the new family of apps, I asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if he's put thought into how ubiquitous mobile access and messaging affects "presence" -- for example, being interrupted with text messages when he is out with his wife. He said Facebook's technology affords "lighter weight communications" that could actually be less intrusive and that it "doesn't make you less likely to call on the phone or get together."
And even Mark Zuckerberg would "much rather be with my wife than message her," he said.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook.