Dr. Christopher Pieper has teamed up to understand the complex relationship between the search for meaning and technology.
Researchers from Baylor and Campbell universities have found that smartphone users searching for meaning and purpose through their devices and social media can experience the opposite.
WACO, Texas (September 20, 2022) – Smartphone users will be disappointed if they expect their devices and social networks to fulfill their need for purpose and meaning. In fact, it will likely do the opposite, researchers from Baylor and Campbell universities found in a recently published study.
Christopher M. Pieper, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, and lead author Justin J. Nelson, MA ’16, Ph.D. ’19, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University Campbell, teamed up to understand the complex relationship between the search for meaning and technology by analyzing data from the Baylor Religion Survey. Their research – “Diseases of Infinite Aspiration: Smartphones, Meaning-Seeking, and Anomigenesis” – has been published in the journal Sociological Perspectives.
The researchers’ findings provide a sociological link to psychological studies that indicate links between digital devices and media use with feelings of loneliness, depression, unhappiness, suicidal ideation and other mental health issues.
“Human beings are seekers – we search for 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 – could play in the search for meaning.
“We conclude that smartphone attachment…may be anomigenic, causing a breakdown of social values due to the unstructured and limitless options they provide for seeking meaning and purpose and inadvertently exacerbating feelings of hopelessness while while simultaneously promising to resolve them,” Pieper said. “Self-seeking becomes the only meaningful activity, which is the basis of anomie and dependence.”
Nelson and Pieper also found a connection between this search for meaning and feelings of attachment to one’s smartphone – a possible precursor to technology addiction.
“Our research reveals that the search for meaning is associated with increased smartphone attachment — a feeling that you would freak out if your phone stopped working,” Nelson said. “Social media use is also correlated with an increased sense of attachment.”
Researchers focused on responses to questions used in Wave 5 of the Baylor National Religion Survey that concerned the use of information and communication technology (ICT) devices, as well as questions related to the meaning and purpose of the Meaning of Life Questionnaire, to show that while the devices promise satisfaction and meaning, they often deliver the opposite.
One of the main findings of the study is that this sense of attachment is highest among those who use social media less often. However, research has found that people seeking reassurance or connection through their phone for shorter periods may exacerbate attachment.
“What’s interesting is that this association decreases for heavier social media users,” Pieper said. “While we don’t know how this group uses social media, it may be that normalized use at the highest levels erases feelings of attachment for the individual – as we say, that would be like saying the ‘one is attached to his eyes or his lungs.
One positive the researchers found is that identifying a satisfying life purpose appears to have a protective effect against this sense of attachment and anomie, although this effect is not as strong as the effect opposite of the search for meaning. Overall, it’s possible that media use reinforced by a goal, such as 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 remains a question for future research.
“What we discovered is a social mechanism that pulls us into smartphone use, and that could keep us hooked, exacerbating feelings of attachment and anomie, and even disconnection, as they promise otherwise. “Pieper said.