Last Friday my wife and I took the kiddo out for pizza. Just after we were seated a family of five were shown to a table next to us. The three kids looked as though they ranged in age from seven to perhaps fourteen. They all peeled off their coats, sat down and gave their drink orders to the waitress. As soon as the waitress turned to go get the drinks every family member produced either a tablet or smartphone and dove into their own world.
This scenario led me to consider not only how much of our time we spend with our attention buried in theses little devices, but how unconscious is the act of pulling them out and losing ourselves in the virtual life that, for some reason, seems so much more important and/or interesting than the actual life that is physically playing out around us.
One thing I want to be clear about here is that I am as guilty as anyone. I try to be “good” when I’m spending time with my daughter but there is no denying that smartphone temptation sometimes gets the best of me because, “Daddy phone away,” was one of her first sentences.
So, the day after witnessing the family at the pizza place I decided to conduct a little experiment. I wondered, how many times a day do I pull out my phone? I stuck a post-it on the back of my phone and put a small pencil in my pocket. Each time the phone came out a line went down on the post-it. The results were about what I expected. At the end of the day I had pulled out my phone sixteen times. The duration the phone was in use varied from a couple seconds to five minutes or more depending on what I was doing, the time of day and how interesting the content.
Next I had to consider what, if anything, did I gain or lose each of the sixteen times that little gadget found it’s way out of my pocket?
I guess I gained a little information, maybe a giggle from a humorous post or a chance to share something interesting (most likely not) that had just happened in the course of my day. But none of that would have been lost had I not accessed it at any of the sixteen times. That information would have patiently sat there waiting for me to get to it at another time.
Okay, then what did I lose? In the immediacy of each of those moments there was undoubtedly some opportunity to experience some event. For example: If I was with my daughter, I lost an opportunity to experience the world through the eyes of a nearly three year old. If I was with my wife, the rare opportunity for a grown-up conversation went into the ether. If alone, the opportunity for a moment of peace. But in the bigger picture, the loss is much greater. The capacity to concentrate on anything for any length of time is jeopardized. At every free moment the phone comes out and the finger dance starts. The ability to spend a few quiet moments absorbing events and/or considering the people in our life disappears. I see this playing out every time I take my daughter to the playground. There is always at least one (and usually many more) parents sitting on a bench outside the play area with their heads down in their phones and they are paying no attention at all to their children. So finally you end up at a restaurant with your spouse and three children and everyone spends the entire meal ignoring one another and tapping on a glowing little screen (and I’m be willing to bet that they weren’t all just texting each other).
So, what’s the answer?
For me there’s one solid rule: Don’t be “that guy” at the playground (or anywhere else when it’s dad/daughter time). And a couple of ideas I try to practice: I’ve been keeping a small pad with my phone so I have the option to draw or jot down lists or ideas without the temptation of Facebook, Twitter, email or news. Another idea is to just get up and walk around for a few minutes. I do this at work more than at home. It’s an opportunity to rest my eyes, stretch my legs and sometimes I even get into conversations with actual people.