I was taking a walk recently and noticed two teenage girls sitting together on a porch of a house. It seemed like a normal scene of two friends spending time with each other. However, as I drew closer I realized that, even though they were inches apart, they were not paying attention to each other. They were both staring at the screens of their respective smartphones.
That experience reminded me of the afternoon my wife and I were visiting our married son and his wife. We were all sitting in their living room, but none of us made a sound. Between us, we had a laptop, an iPad and two cellphones in our hands. I looked up from my own personal screen and surveyed the scene with some amazement. This never happened when our relatives visited my wife and me when we were my son’s age. That’s because we didn’t have personal electronic devices to distract us.
Spending time checking the latest news sites, tweets and Facebook posts may seem essential for the busy professional. News junkies can easily justify extensive smartphone use as an essential routine in an information-overloaded world. There is this nagging fear that we may be the last to know, the least informed about what is going on in the world.
However, there are social costs to consider, primarily in our relationships with others close to us. For example, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, one-quarter of couples admit that one partner has been distracted by a mobile phone when they were together. That percentage rises to 42 percent for couples under 30. The problem is particularly acute when quality time, such a couple’s date night, is shared with a cellphone. Author Catherine Steiner-Adair calls it “tech makes three.”
Another social cost is in the quality of parent-child interaction. Pediatrician Jenny Radesky told of the moment when she saw a mother with a smartphone in the baby’s stroller. “The baby was making faces and smiling at the mom, and the mom wasn’t picking up any of it; she was just watching a YouTube video.” She says that constant cellphone use by parents harms children because parents are not interacting with them in ways that help children develop socially.
There is no doubt that mobile phone use has improved our lives in a multitude of ways. Yet the smartphone should not displace human contact. It should not rob of us of precious time with those we love.
Some friends of ours have transformed their house into a personal electronic device-free zone when the grandchildren come over. Of course, they also plan activities for them so there isn’t just a vacuum. They say the grandchildren resisted at first (as did their parents), but they have gotten accustomed to actually doing things with Grandma and Grandpa rather than being absorbed in a personal screen.
Perhaps we should consider putting down the cellphone more often and talking to the people around us instead. Maybe we should remember that the family member in the same room really is much more important than our favorite news site or the person we are following on Twitter or Facebook. They will keep, but our spouse or children may not.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.