We need a wake-up call from our phones

By Joy Carrico | Published Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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I remember when phones were devices we used to talk to people. They were not portable, and they did nothing more than connect us to the person on the other end of the line so we could communicate.

Isn’t it ironic that these devices designed for human interaction have become a block to human interaction, and even a tool used to avoid it?

Look around next time you go out to dinner. You will see groups of people seated at the same table doing the same thing, but not together. They’ll all be looking at their phones.

People walk down the street looking at their phones. They drive looking at their phones. In the airport, everyone is plugged into a phone or tablet. It goes on and on.

I am not up on all the ways in which I can allow my phone to distract me. I have a very basic understanding of what Instagram and Twitter do. I have no idea what Snapchat is, and I still don’t entirely understand the transformation of the pound symbol into its present manifestation as a hashtag. I have a Facebook page, but I rarely use it.

Despite this, I have a smartphone, and I use it a lot, probably too much. I use it for looking things up on the Internet. I play games on it. I text, check email, use the alarm clock on it and the timer. I listen to audiobooks and music. Oh, and I do on occasion use it to make phone calls.

My phone is my constant companion. It’s rarely off, and it’s rarely out of reach.

A number of years ago, someone told me he hated it when people “attend to their personal technology in public.” This comment made me stop and think.

Before that moment, I hadn’t considered that paying attention to my phone in public might be rude or inappropriate.

I started monitoring myself and noticing the phone usage of others in public. What I observed amazed me.

We’re all having private conversations in public. We’re ignoring our surroundings and being swept away by whatever has us mesmerized on our little screens. We’re going out to eat, or to a sporting event, or a movie, but spending our time on our phones. It’s everywhere. We’re so busy taking selfies that we’re not stopping to experience the place we’re visiting, but instead making sure the world knows what we’re doing by posting it on Facebook.

Because of my friend’s offhand comment, I came up with some ground rules for proper personal technology etiquette. I do not claim to always manage to obey these rules, but I do believe they are important for effective human interaction.

  • I put the phone away and silence it when spending time with another person.
  • If, during a visit, the phone buzzes, I usually ignore it and let it go to voicemail. If I feel I must deal with it, I first ask the other person if he/she minds the interruption to attend to the call or text or whatever. I do not just answer the call or text, and I don’t continue to pretend to be listening while dealing with whatever the phone is bringing into the situation, and I don’t try to sneak-text under the table.
  • If I pull my phone out during a conversation, I explain what I’m doing. “I’m looking up the name of that actor you’re trying to remember.”
  • I turn off all alerts related to email messages, Facebook posts or any other thing that announces that someone winked at me or something. My phone rings to indicate a call, bings to indicate a text and sounds an alarm to tell me to get out of bed. All other sounds are neutralized.
  • I turn off all non-essential notifications. Do I wish to be notified when new albums are available on iTunes or a sudoku game has released new levels? No, I do not.

It’s incredible to me the hold these handheld devices have over us. Somehow we allow them to take our attention away from things, even vital things like driving, just because it makes a noise and we need to find out what it is.

If I can’t find my phone, my anxiety level is much larger than seems reasonable for the situation, and I’ve witnessed this in others. Last week a friend told me if she forgot her phone, she would panic and be unable to cope. We seem to have an emotional dependence on these machines. Are these adult, modern security blankets we’re carrying around?

I saw an advertisement from AT&T last night urging people to withold talking or texting while driving. Over and over they said and displayed the words “It can wait.” I thought, “Gee, this reminds me of the beer companies promoting designated drivers.” Our phones have become like alcohol.

Accidents due to “distracted driving” are on the rise, and the phone companies (or whatever they’re called now) are creating ad campaigns to try to forestall the public bloodletting that is coming. It won’t be long before “distracted driver” will be the mark of shame that “drunk driver” is now.

Smartphones are great tools. They provide levels of access to information and convenience that was inconceivable 30 years ago. But we have a problem. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need to set limits on our use of these devices.

It needs to become socially unacceptable to text while driving. Everyone will freely admit that it’s a bad idea, and everyone does it at least sometimes. This needs to change. I would love for it to change before we are forced to change it because so many people have been killed by distracted drivers that we can no longer ignore the problem.

We need to put our phones away when we’re doing stuff. We’re so busy documenting our experiences and putting them on social media that we’re failing to actually experience them. We shouldn’t need to be told not to use our phones at movies, concerts or any other environment where dark and quiet are expected.

We might consider turning our phones off at night. There are these things called alarm clocks, which I think are still available in stores, that we can use if we need help waking up in the mornings.

We could entertain the idea that our every action, every meal, every outing, does not need to be posted on social media. We might benefit from cutting back on all the posting. We might find we’re more present for the experience without the constant documentation of it. And before using our phones, we might pause to consider whether our use of it will disturb others in our vicinity.

Joy Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. She answered three texts while working on this column and checked her phone many, many times.

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