Look closely whenever you are out and about, moving through the world now. Everyone’s heads are down, their gazes glued to screens, their fingers tap, tap tapping away. On the train, on buses, sitting on a bench, or when walking, everyone has their face downcast, their eyes on the devices clutched in hand. Some people even text while driving. I’ve watched people riding a bicycle while still holding up and looking at their phones! I also witnessed a young woman, right next to me as I was walking to work one day, no joke, slam into a streetlight pole. She had been staring at her phone.
We are becoming a sort of walking dead. Ensnared and hypnotized and gripped by our screens.
We are routinely dismissing and ignoring the live human beings, sights, and sounds, the whole world, really, for our devices.
In restaurants or during get-togethers with loved ones, people may chat and semi-focus on each other for some minutes, but then shortly thereafter, most of them are usually reaching for their cell phones, grasping for their screens.
Spending time with loved ones, friends, a romantic partner, is never almost fully focused and present anymore. Instead, we are sort of present and somewhat “listen” in short, fractured bursts. We might be there, mentally, for a few moments, but then “need” to check our phones.
It’s as though we expect to find something significant, something essential, something life-changing within that screen, that text, that update. When in reality, we are missing the significant, essential things that are passing us by, right in front of us, in real-time.
We think the excitement, the connections, the news, the world is there in our phone and screens when in reality, all of that is passing us by while we stare down and swipe at our devices.
This is a cycle on repeat for many of us.
People don’t really read books anymore. They “read” while scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. They skim memes and quotes. They might read a paragraph or two in an article and then click out of it, already distracted by something else, and assuming they understood the gist of it based on that little bit alone. Many people now find books “boring” or “too long.” They “cannot focus on them.” Someone might sit down to read but then, within a few minutes, find themselves reaching to “just check” their cell phone, and doing this over and over again. You know why for all of this? Our attention spans have shrunk and grown fractured.
(Don’t believe me? Read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. It’s excellent. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, superbly written, loaded with research, science, and philosophical thought).
This is also, largely, how many people get their news and knowledge of the world today. Twenty years ago, people used to actually read legit novels, books, the newspaper, journals, etc. And they might sit and read, focused and engaged with it, for an hour or two. Today, people skim, their eyes jump around, they read a paragraph and move on, and they get their news from Twitter and Instagram (which, by the way, isn’t real news. Try The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The NY Times, or TIME magazine for starters).
People go to a concert, play, or other live performance, and watch much of it through the screen on their phone (snapping photos and recording it to later share for the reactions of others online, instead of just being fully present themselves at the event). This is like experiencing something secondhand, through a lens, once-removed.
Today, we often live life through our screens, through online posts, snapping photos, texting, and video clips rather than live, fully present, and fully focused in real-time.
It’s also rare that anyone today is ever truly alone with themselves. Being with just themselves, in silence and solitude, freaks a lot of people out. They “get bored.” They feel itchy and restless. They don’t know how to relax and just think. They feel a need for distraction or entertainment of some sort. And, they fear what they might find there when alone with themselves. What feelings, thoughts, and realizations they might come face to face to without any distractions.
We have grown into a culture with little tolerance for emotional pain, discomfort, or aloneness (all of which are very different things). We also refuse to ever be bored. So, instead, we just grab our phones if we ever feel alone or bored, searching for relief from this.
This comes at a significant cost, though. In never being truly alone, without distractions ever at the ready, one cannot possibly know themselves very well. People who are comfortable in solitude tend to be more creative, more emotionally mature, insightful and introspective than those who are not and who do not spend much time on their own. Reflective time creates reflective people. People who are comfortable being alone tend to be calmer. They are choosier about who and what they spend their time on since they don’t feel neediness towards it and they actually enjoy solitude.
(Note: being alone and in true solitude means just you and yourself. No cell phone, no television on, no book in hand, and no conversational partner. It’s just you and your thoughts in quiet).
And yet, even when we aren’t alone, most of us are no longer even fully connected to one another. Glance across any restaurant patio, any party scene, any group of people out and about. You will notice that periodically, regularly, they will all be pulling out their phones to look, scroll, and tap on them. We focus on each other in short bursts. We give each other a little bit of attention, and then it’s diverted. We go out to dinner with friends or a romantic partner but are also texting and scrolling.
We are everywhere and nowhere, both at the same time.
Studies have shown this has a detrimental effect on relationships. Even the mere presence of a phone sitting on a table untouched causes the conversational partner of the phone owner to feel less invested, less good about the interaction, less likely to confide, and get into deeper, interesting stuff. People routinely feel ignored and annoyed by their friends and loved one's phone usage.
And for good reason. It’s incredibly rude. Just because something is accepted and normalized doesn’t mean it’s good. Consider: heavy drinking in America, abusing prescription pills, eating lots of sugar, cheating in relationships, support toward Donald Trump, working too much, and not getting enough sleep. All of these are fairly normalized, widespread things in our culture nowadays. Yet, it doesn’t mean any of them are good. In fact, most of them are outright negative and harmful.
Many people who leave their phones at home report feeling anxious, panicked, and adrift without them. Yet, our phones are resulting in us growing ever more adrift from one another.
Adolescents spend an average of six hours on their phones every day.
Adults are using them to similar degrees.
We are tethered, enslaved by, addicted to, and obsessed with our screens. Want to debate me on this? No need to bother. Let’s go walk down the street together. Almost every single person will have a phone clutched in hand. Most will be staring at it.
This is our next big public health crisis. It already is one. Cell phones and our addictions to our devices are destroying our relationships, our ability to sleep well, our attention spans, our mental health, our ability to focus deeply on things, and are distracting us from real life as it unfolds right before us. Cell phones are a significant problem right now for most people. And for those whose cell phones are not a problem for them directly, they likely still impact their relationships because of their friends or partner's problems with their devices.
We have got to start looking more closely at this issue and changing our behavior now before we become a society of completely disconnected people. We are already much of the way there.