Our society is filled with distraction and seems to be obsessed with it. Our focus seems to be on staying “busy” constantly and we’re addicted to our electronics. People get together for meals, walks, vacations, family dinners – and most everyone has their smartphone along with them. And, the phones aren’t just “with them” - they are in their hands, turned on, and being used. I went out to see a performer last weekend and the stage hands were literally sitting on the side of the stage glued to their phones and ignoring the performer!
When I go out to dinner with friends, I’m amazed and saddened to see people staring at their phones, texting, or posting on social media during their meal instead of talking with their friends, family, or partner. Gone are the days when you’d walk into a restaurant that was buzzing with conversation and the clinking of dishes. Now, when you walk into a restaurant, you hear the servers speaking to each other and to the guests, the sounds of dishes being moved around, perhaps a few soft conversations (if you’re lucky), and the buzzing, clicking, and dinging of smartphones and tablets. We seem to be losing the ability to hold a spoken conversation that lasts for more than a minute or two because we rely on texts, email, and social media posts.
Smartphone addiction is very real, and people are unable to “unplug.” Is it fear of missing something? Is the addiction so strong that they just don’t know HOW to unplug anymore? Many people have given up having landline phones because they’re seen as unnecessary when you have a cell phone which can be taken with you everywhere. But, do you remember letting your house phone ring and the call go to voicemail because you didn’t want to be interrupted during dinner or family movie night? How many times do you let a text or a call on your cell phone sit unanswered until you’re finished with dinner, a movie, an in-person conversation, or even until the next morning? When did all communication become so urgent that it must be handled and addressed immediately?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we go back to rotary phones and desktop computers. The advances in technology have been amazing and wonderful in so many ways. What I am suggesting is that we set boundaries for ourselves. Boundaries that protect our “down time” and time with family and friends. If we don’t set those boundaries and enforce them, who will? This is the first step in offering gifts of PRESENCE to those we love this holiday season.
What am I suggesting? Start turning your cell phones off and putting them in a basket (or bag) out of sight during dinner time at home or at a restaurant. Set limits on how many times you’ll check your email and social media each day and how long you’ll spend on work-related email at home. If you tend to check your phone and read articles when you’re running errands and have to wait, take a book or magazine along instead and read that. Stop yourself when you start to check your phone for the umpteenth time while you’re out with friends. In fact, consider an app like Checky or Moment. Moment keeps track of how much time you spend on your phone and allows you to set alerts reminding you of goals you set to decrease your screen time. Checky keeps track of how many times you check your phone (not length of time spent on the phone) and tracks where you are when you check it. Each of these can be a wonderful tool in helping us use our smartphones appropriately and be mindful of how our time is spent.
How can you begin to make these changes and turn them into PRESENCE for the holidays? Perhaps as a present you can purchase a movie or live show tickets for you and your family or partner, and note in the gift card that you want it to be an outing without electronic distraction and that you’d like everyone to leave their phones at home during the outing. Share some special family recipes in a nice book and include some photos of loved ones cooking and set a time to try those recipes with family members in a “no-electronics” zone. Share the gift of volunteering to help those less fortunate with a loved one by inviting them to join you while you volunteer and then spend time afterwards discussing the experience over coffee or a meal. When you’re choosing and giving presents of time, experience and relationship (whatever they are) this holiday season, include a note with the gift that you want the time with them to be special and distraction-free, so you’ll be turning your phone off or leaving it at home or in the car during your time together. You can’t force others to join you, but you can set the example.
Smartphone addiction is very real and isn’t something that will be kicked overnight. It takes awareness and small steps everyday. If we begin to monitor our electronics use and set boundaries for mindful use, we’ll loosen the ties our phones, tablets, and computers have on us, and I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that it’s easier to relax and to spend time, time being truly present, with those we love.