People would rather be on their phones than engage with other people

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Unsplash

I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now that overlooks a busy four-way stop at an intersection. I keep seeing people drive by, and as they roll to a stop, they look down at their phones, only to let off the brake and continue on their merry way, sometimes with their phone still in hand.

All I can think is, “Why, for crying out loud, is it so necessary to check your phone for two seconds?!” But then I remember that this is not the only situation where this behavior occurs, and smartphone addiction isn’t exactly a recent development. I recently wrote about deactivating my Facebook accountbecause of how it interfered with my daily life, but I think the issue goes even further than that.

I see this problem every day with my students in the classroom. If you haven’t been around a school lately, I’ll paint you a picture: droves of teenagers walking down a hallway, most with their earbuds in while looking down at their phones. I take delight in stepping in front of them just so they can awkwardly bump into me because they aren’t paying the least bit of attention. “You shouldn’t text and walk,” I tell them half-laughing, half-serious, but they can’t hear me. Even worse, I see some students in the classroom who have a compulsive connection to their phones. I’ve had to take phones away simply because some students genuinely can’t seem to put them down.

Adults are no better. I look around during after-school meetings and at least half of my colleagues are on their phones, completely ignoring the presenter. I too have been guilty of this. I used to jump from app to app to check the latest updates and scroll mindlessly through my feeds, looking for something more “entertaining” than the real world. But was anything I was doing necessary? Definitely not.

“Smartphone users spend an average of 140 minutes on their phones each day.”

And of course we’re all too familiar by now with the modern hangout or dinnertime scene: a bunch of friends or family members in the same room all looking at their phones. Even more sad than these scenarios, however, is what I saw on TV two weeks ago. It was a news story by the local media in which the reporter interviewed a group of children about how they feel when their parents spend a lot of time on their phones. The parents watched the conversation from another room and reacted in shock when most of the kids confessed that they often felt ignored or, even worse, that the child was afraid to interrupt the parent and make them angry. Needless to say, there is a major problem in our society that all of us need to address.

It’s been more than a decade since smartphones and tablets first appeared. Since then, humans have been completely glued to their devices. On the one hand, the technology does make daily life easier and more convenient, but on the other hand, people have become too accustomed to using tech merely as outlets to escape the real world and the people around us. Check out the pictures in this article by the Huffington Post and you’ll see the problem very clearly: People would rather be on their phones than engage with other people.

I wanted to do some digging to find out just how addicted we are. I found a study that showed smartphone users spend an average of 140 minutes on their phones each day, unlocking them more than 70 times and touching them more than 2,600 times total! I was shocked at first; I know I fall into the average user category, and it’s appalling to think how much wasted time that adds up to in an entire year of smartphone addiction.

As Sherry Turkle, an MIT psychologist and author of the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Otherwrites, “The way I like to put it is technology can make us forget what we know about life. One of the things it’s made us forget is that we need to tend to our relationships and other people and our own feelings.”

Turkle’s advice is spot-on. We need to take time away from our devices to activelyengage with the people around us and cultivate better relationships, as humans were genetically programmed to do. Equally important, we need to tend to our own feelings, because so many of us don’t even realize the anxiety and stress that being addicted to our smartphone is creating in our lives.

I know this, because I was that person.

I used to care so much about my social media presence. I wanted to post the perfect pictures with the perfect filters and the perfect caption. Then I had to check — constantly — and monitor the response from my followers, thereby validating my social media worth. I used to keep up with group text message conversations and try to plan the next hangout while I was in the middle of work. I used to scroll through Twitter or Instagram at lunch instead of connecting with the people around me. And when I had exhausted all of the above options, I would scroll through my stock holdings just to see the latest minor fluctuation in prices.

I had a serious problem and didn’t even know it. Even when people around me joked about how much I used my phone, I brushed it off as just a sign of the times. It’s okay, I thought, because I can multitask, so it’s really not a big deal. Little did I understand, though, how these habits were eroding my own sense of security while also elevating my levels of stress and anxiety. I started to dwell on responses to my posts, or how many “favorites” my tweets got, or how often somebody texted me, or how much my stocks gained or lost. My relationship with my phone became completely compulsive and negative.

“My body physically forced me to take a break from all the texting and apps.”

The turning point for me came when I first started having signs of rheumatoid arthritis. I mistook the pain in my hands and wrists as possible carpal tunnel, because the pain made me aware of how many times I touched my phone. My body physically forced me to take a break from all the texting and apps, because I didn’t want to exacerbate the symptoms I was experiencing. With some ice and rest, I figured it would all go away.

When that didn’t happen and I learned it was a more serious problem, it was an even bigger revelation for me: Life doesn’t last forever. There will come a point when I can’t use my hands or feet or body as well as I can now. I’m wasting my best years staring at a phone screen instead of living my life. Since that moment, I have become mindful of this modern-day addiction and am working to revert my life back to normal.

To help with this goal, I just finished reading the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris, who opened my eyes to the importance of being mindful and present. Harris is a famous journalist at ABC who had a similar epiphany when he had a panic attack live on national television. He learned that this was caused by a buildup of stress and anxiety relating to his modern lifestyle, such as compulsively checking his BlackBerry to keep in touch with his work 24/7. Similarly, I used to check my phone incessantly — without any prompting — mostly to entertain myself in everyday situations. I was allowing my mind to obsess over the latest updates, notifications, texts, tweets, and posts rather than focusing on the real world, and especially the people around me.

So, I’ve taken Harris’ advice and started practicing mindfulness and meditation in my own life. I have to say it has already had hugely positive ramifications, which is why I’m writing about it here. It doesn’t take much to regain control of your life and drastically reduce the stress of smartphone addiction.

For example, you can charge your phone in another room besides your bedroom.I used to check my phone every morning after waking up and every evening before bed. Now I limit my interactions during these times and instead focus on a relaxing start and end to the day. You can put your phone on silent while you’re working. If you’re expected to focus on something, don’t let your phone distract you. You’ll find that you can start to appreciate the work you’re doing again.

Another challenge is to resist the urge to use your phone as a distraction from life. Sometimes mindfulness means becoming aware of how you feel in seemingly “boring” moments throughout the day. Now, instead of checking my phone while waiting in line, I just wait in line. Likewise, I eat meals without needing to scroll through Instagram at the same time. Throughout the day, I actively remind myself to pause, look around, and enjoy a few mindful moments. When was the last time you noticed what a snowflake looks like as it falls all the way to the ground? (I see snow out my window right now.) Or the last time you actually tasted the coffee you’re drinking? You’d be surprised how it can feel incredibly relaxing to slow down time by avoiding unnecessary distractions.

Lastly, I recommend deleting some apps — especially at least one social media app. If you want to use your phone less, then give yourself one less notification to read or one less mindless game to play. Instead, use your new free time to take up an activity that reengages you with the world. I have been spending more time with people, more time reading books, and more time blogging. It’s amazing how beneficial replacing even small amounts of time with a more soul-satisfying activity can be.

As I sit here watching driver after driver checking their phone, I think there’s an important message to spread: It’s okay to put the phone down. In fact, it’s okay to not even have the phone within reach at all times. You might just be surprised how great you feel by doing it.

Steven Hopper 


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