WACO, Texas (Sept. 26, 2022) – Smartphone users will be disappointed if they expect their devices and social media to fill their need for purpose and meaning. In fact, it will probably do the opposite, researchers at Baylor and Campbell Universities found in a recently published study.
Christopher M. Pieper, Ph.D., senior lecturer of sociology at Baylor University, and lead author Justin J. Nelson, M.A. ’16, Ph.D. ’19, assistant professor of sociology at Campbell University, partnered to understand the complex relationship between meaning-seeking and technology by analyzing data from the Baylor Religion Survey. Their research – “Maladies of Infinite Aspiration’: Smartphones, Meaning-Seeking, and Anomigenesis” – was published in the journal Sociological Perspectives.
The researchers’ results provide a sociological link to the psychological studies that point to connections between digital devices and media use with feelings of loneliness, depression, unhappiness, suicidal ideation and other poor mental health outcomes.
“Human beings are seekers – we seek meaning in our relationships, our work, our faith, in all areas of social life,” Pieper said. “As researchers, we were interested in the role that smartphones – and the media they give us instant access to – might be playing in meaning-seeking.
“We conclude that smartphone attachment…could be anomigenic, causing a breakdown in social values because of the unstructured and limitless options they provide for seeking meaning and purpose and inadvertently exacerbate feelings of despair while simultaneously promising to resolve them,” Pieper said. “Seeking itself becomes the only meaningful activity, which is the basis of anomie and addiction.”
Nelson and Pieper also found a connection between this search for meaning and feelings of attachment to one’s smartphone – a possible precursor to tech addiction.
“Our research finds that meaning-seeking is associated with increased smartphone attachment – a feeling that you would panic if your phone stopped working,” Nelson said. “Social media use is also correlated with increased feelings of attachment.”
The researchers concentrated on responses to questions used in Wave 5 of the national Baylor Religion Survey that related to information and communication technology (ICT) devices use, as well as questions related to meaning and purpose from the Meaning in Life Questionnaire, to show that while devices promise satisfaction and meaning, they often deliver the opposite.
A key finding of the study is that this feeling of attachment is highest for those who use social media less often. However, the research found that individuals seeking solace or connection through their phones in shorter spurts might exacerbate attachment.
“What is interesting is this association decreases for the heaviest of social media users,” Pieper said. “While we don’t know how this group uses social media, it might be that normalized use at the highest levels erases feelings of attachment for the individual – as we put it, it would be like saying one is attached to their eyes or lungs.”
One positive the researchers found is that identifying a satisfying purpose for life seems to provide a protective effect against this sense of attachment and anomie, though this effect is not as strong as the opposite effect of meaning-seeking. Taken together, it is possible that media use bolstered by purpose, such as through family, work or faith, is less likely to produce alienating effects for the individual, the researchers said. But, not knowing what specific users are doing online, this remains a question for future research.
“What we have uncovered is a social mechanism that draws us into smartphone use, and that might keep us hooked, exacerbating feelings of attachment and anomie, and even disconnection, while they promise the opposite,” Pieper said.
ABOUT THE RESEARCHERS
Christopher M. Pieper, Ph.D., has been on the sociology faculty at Baylor University since 2011. His research interests include political sociology, social theory, religion and technology/media. He has published and presented widely on topics related to culture and politics, particularly the role of morality in social movements.
Justin J. Nelson, Ph.D., earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from Baylor University and joined the faculty of Campbell University in 2018, where he serves as assistant professor of sociology. His research interests include technology/media, community, family, education and religion.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT THE COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments in the sciences, humanities, fine arts and social sciences, as well as 10 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit baylor.edu/artsandsciences.
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Subject of Research
"Maladies of Infinite Aspiration”: Smartphones, Meaning-Seeking, and Anomigenesis
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The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.