Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
I said I didn’t want a microwave. It was against my whole foods ethos. Now it’s in regular use in my house. I said I didn’t want email. It was against my communicate-directly-with-people principles. I now can’t imagine living without it. I said I wasn’t a social media sort of person. Yup, I’m addicted.
A few years ago I was still holding out against smartphones. They were and still are expensive to use. I explained to my kids that back when their dad and I got married our phone bill was $18 a month. That did nothing but provide more evidence of my dinosaur-ness. Eventually I capitulated and got a smart phone. (I was assured my phone cost nothing with our teen/young adult kids pitching in for the cost of their phones.) Of course once I got sucked into the smartphone world I was unable to go back. And I don’t want to go back.
It’s heartening to see how pivotal mobile phones are in the developing world. Globally, almost 95 percent of households have access to a cell phone and it’s projected that 15 percent of families in Africa and the Middle East will soon have smartphones. They’re used for banking, business, texting, taking pictures, social networking, accessing information, and much more —- connecting and improving lives.
Smartphones are also advancing social justice because we’re able to document abuses of power. The Exxon/Mobil pipeline rupture in Mayflower, Arkansas spilling over 200, 000 gallons of tar sands crude oil (while media access was limited) would have been largely unknown if not shared by residents. Circumstances around the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philandro Castile, and too many others at the hands of police would have been largely unknown other than by their official reports. Because we can share what we’re seeing, people the media usually ignores are able to more fully tell their own truths
But I haven’t adjusted to how smartphones affect person-to-person interactions. I belong to several groups which meet regularly. There’s always one person, sometimes more than one, who spends a large part of our meeting time looking at his/her phone.
I understand, really, In the years since I’ve had a smart phone I’ve been entangled in all sorts of this-message-could-be-important moments. A family member in the hospital, a publication going to press, a kid with car trouble. So I check. Of course I check. Sometimes I put the phone on my lap for a quick glimpse at messages as if I’m not staring at my crotch, Sometimes I just fess up that I have to look, at least when I’m with friends. But here’s the thing. My sense of urgency rarely, if ever, matches the number of times I’ve prioritized my phone.
One study shows the mere presence of a smartphone impairs our sense of connection to the people right next to us. There’s something about the phone itself, ready to shudder with a text or update, that diverts our attention.
I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more and more distracted simply because there are so many more options for distraction. In an essay titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr writes that being online has retrained his mind to “…take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
For kids raised in the digital age, this may happen early on. A preliminary study suggests that when parents of one-year-olds get distracted (typically by their phones) while playing with their babies, their babies have shorter attention spans. Babies with the shortest attention span were those whose parents were disengaged or distracted. (There’s a happy medium though, because babies with parents who were overly intrusive and directive in play also had a lower attention span. Sort of like the porridge that’s not too hot or cold, it’s the parents letting the baby take the lead who foster greater attentiveness.)
This is a problem because most of us, parents included, spend a lot of time looking at screens. One study watched parents interacting with young children at fast food restaurants. Researchers observed a total of 55 caregivers who were eating with one or more children. Forty used a mobile device at some point. Most got out their phones right away. Some used it intermittently, some stayed on for most of the meal. The study also found that parents on their smartphones are more likely to react harshly to children. (How preoccupied were the parents? None of them even noticed they were being watched by the study’s observers.)
Too much of this can disrupt connection, shut down conversation, and diminish attunement between parent and child. That’s not to say parents should spend every moment gazing in adoration at their kids, but it’s through engaged face-to-face connection with the primary people in their lives that kids learn to pick up on social cues, develop self-regulation, read other people’s emotions, build vocabulary, share ideas, and much more. And let’s not forget, children with a close sense of connection grow up feeling they are worthy.
Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, was so troubled by what she saw in her clinical practice that she decided to interview 1,000 kids between the ages of four and 18 to gauge their reactions to parents’ mobile phone use. Again and again she heard kids talk about their feelings with the same words: “sad, mad, angry, and lonely.” Kids know full well that people looking at their phones are not really with us.
It helps to remember that the choices we make over and over actually rewire our brains to prefer that choice. It’s the neurological equivalent of driving along the exact same tracks in a dirt road, making ruts deeper and deeper until it’s nearly impossible to steer a different course. It’s easy to create these mental ruts thanks to dopamine, our brain’s feel-good chemical. We’re wired to get a rush of dopamine from all sorts of everyday delights. A problem solved, a smile across the room, a kiss, a hug—zing goes the dopamine reward. That’s also true of a tweet—zing. A text—zing. Zing zing zing thanks to Instagram, channel flipping, online games. The previous hit of dopamine increases the need for another one. Pretty soon we’re addicted to the dopamine rush, driving our brains into an ever deeper rut. I try to remind myself of this when tempted to pull out my phone to use up a few minutes while waiting in line, instead rewiring my mind to look around me and live in the moment exactly where I am.
Our phones are here to stay. They put us in touch with people important to us and to ideas that capture us. They’re so new to the human experience that we’re just beginning to learn how to balance them with the lives we want to live. It doesn’t help to label our use as good or bad. It helps to step out into the field beyond, sharing what works for us.
How do you find that balance?