DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

Let me start off by saying: I’m guilty.

I, too, fall in the same traps. I feel the same pull that you do – it’s at once tantalizing and comforting. I have the same love-hate relationship you do.  Of course, I’m talking about my relationship with my cell phone. There is always an e-mail to check, a text to deliver, a site to look up, a click to be made. there’s always work to be done and fun to be had.

I share my own guilt here so as to not come across as preachy in my observations below or in my strategies of how to manage this vice.

When asked, most people would not say they wish to prioritize technology over people. But, in a micro-moment, a conversation is left for a quick phone check that turns into a detailed search… a connection with a new person is lost as we respond to a new post on social media… the person in our presence is neglected as we give greater attention to the faceless person in the game we are playing or in the image of the “Facebook friend” we are liking.

We know this. But we struggle to change. We often struggle to admit it’s a problem or at the least, a bad habit. We are quick to be defensive about all the great benefits of the smart-phone. It can be difficult to be fully honest with ourselves. Change is difficult.

I see our own mindlessness, or unawareness, or autopilot living, as the culprit. Here are my observations of my 5-year-old son’s swimming lesson yesterday.

I entered a different world today. 

I walked into the large rectangular area that surrounded the pool. There were 20 swim coaches, each in different lanes, working with 2-3 children in each lane. Other swim coaches walked around the rectangle to monitor the kids’ progress. Clocks were on the walls at each end, timing the 30-minute lessons to the second. This was a well-oiled machine – attentive, planful, engaged. Outside of the pool, a stark contrast emerged.

My son got in the water to start the lesson. I went to sit down on the long bench nearest to my son’s lane but found a man sitting in the closest spot. He was looking down at his phone. He didn’t look up. It was as if a bed of rocks sat atop his head and was pushing his head down bending him so that the back of his neck could kiss the sky. Or, maybe something from the phone was propelling him forward – maybe he was attending to an emergency at home? Or perhaps he was waiting on an email that would inform him if he was to be hired or fired? Or was he merely stretching his neck?

I moved on to find a spot on the bench, much further away from my son’s lane. I looked around and it appeared that others were experiencing the same affliction as the man in my spot. There were couples, single parents, grandparents, and families on the benches. Many were propelled forward, downward, by their phone. Out of curiosity, I counted the number of people watching their children and the number of people on their phones. I did this counting at different points during the lesson. The percentage ranged from 50-75% of people giving attention to their phone over their child.

And, then the kicker. I turned to my right and saw a grandmother on her phone. She seemed quite intrigued and happy, rarely looking up from it while her two grand-daughters swam from one end of the lane to next. I noticed one of her grand-daughters swim to the edge of the pool, about 5 feet from her grandmother, and began waving to her. The grandmother did not notice. The granddaughter continued to wave with a smile. Nothing. Then, she started calling out “grandma” and again no response. I was encouraged by the granddaughter’s perseverance but little did she know an electronic device was causing an even greater perseverance in the grandmother’s attention. The smart-phone had won, dominating this particular interaction. This went on for a full minute until I could no longer take it so I tapped the grandmother on the shoulder and pointed to the waving girl in the pool. She shared a smile, made an encouraging comment or two, and returned to her phone. 

What can we do about this?

  1. First, you should ask yourself: Is there anything I want to do about this? Perhaps you are happy with your ratio of technology time and family time. Each individual and family should reflect on this and make their own decision.
     
  2. For many of us, the first step is to admit, humbly, that this is an issue – a challenge. We can say – “I’m on my phone too much,” “at times I prioritize my technology over my family” – and similar statements that reflect the honest reality.
     
  3. Set up rules ahead of time. For example, when I go to my son’s weekly swim lesson, I have a personal rule that I’ll only use my phone to take a picture of my son in the water or to text my wife regarding dinner planning. No exceptions. Such a rule – even for a short period of time – is not only freeing but catalyzes mindfulness for me.
     
  4. Create a technology time – family time ratio that is ideal for you. What percentage of time spent on technology and time spent with family is realistic for you? What would a good balance be? Imagine if a camera was on you throughout the day and observing your ratio, would you be proud of what was observed? Is there a goal you might work toward?
     
  5. Prioritize character values. What are your highest character strengths? Which of the 24 strengths do you value most? Which do you want to live by? Knowing these can help you construct an optimal ratio and personal rules to live by.
     
  6. Examine your “causes.” Often we turn to our phones for quick stimulation or curiosity succor. We do this because we are bored with the moment, irritated about something, anxiously waiting for a response or a “like,” mildly upset and needing a distraction, and a myriad of other reasons – any and all of these reasons are fodder for our mindfulness. We can bring our mindful attention to these impulses and subtle emotions to better understand them and even to transcend them.
     
  7. Set up a technology fast. There are many ways to do this, for example:
    • Set a fasting day once a week (e.g., every Sunday) for no technology or no phone use.
    • Set fasting time periods each day (e.g., no phone use after 9PM or before 9AM).
      • While it might be intriguing to awaken and turn to your phone as your morning greeting, it can be equally intriguing to allow your brain to engage the day, the morning sun, a glass of water, unfettered by technology information.
  8. Configure technology free zones. Make some activities and rituals off-limits for phone use (e.g., the dinner table, the bedroom, while on a date, etc.).
     
  9. Get mutual agreement among other family members. You’re all in this together – figure out fasts, technology free-zones, and other guiding principles that work for your family. Encourage and support one another in a kind, non-judging way.
     
  10. Prioritize rituals that do not require technology – a spiritual practice, a daily meditation, a peaceful walk, a yoga routine. Such rituals that offer mindfulness to percolate give us a mental counterbalance.

Reference:

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston: Hogrefe.

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