Does staring at your phone for hours on end serve any practical purpose?
How often are we guilty of ignoring the people we love to check if randoms we havent seen in years have posted new pictures of their children online?
Does staring at my phone for hours every day serve any practical purpose?
I recently weaned my two two-year-olds off pacifiers. They were heavy users and I kept telling myself I was going to do it, but didnt. Then I took them to the dentist and after looking in their mouths what was happening to their jaws through extended use of the pacifier she said a word more terrifying to British ears in America than either Trump or audience participation: orthodontics. The next day I told them the pacifier fairy had visited overnight and taken their pacifiers to give to the babies.
I mention this because their relationship with the pacifier was something I had cause to think about in the context of my own behavior this week, when I emerged from the subway in lower Manhattan to find my phone had packed up en route. The call function was working but I couldnt load the map or recover my emails. I stood there for a moment, on the corner of Broadway and Wall Street, trying to gather my thoughts. Where, exactly, was I? And where was I going? And how on earth was I going to get there when I hadnt written down the address of my meeting and had no immediate way of retrieving it?
What struck me particularly in that moment was not the practical difficulty I found myself in, of how to proceed when I had lost my coordinates, but the existential unease I felt at being temporarily severed from my life online. I tried to remember if there is a directory enquiry service in the US and if so, what the number is, but this seemed so antiquated a concept I couldnt even remember the words directory enquiry. Then I wondered if I should stop someone on the street and ask to log on to my email on their phone. Then I simply stood there, in a state of paralysis, amazed at how feeble I had suddenly become.
The point Im trying to make is that when I see people holding their phones in the street, I dont think they are simply keeping them accessible to stare at in the three seconds of downtime while they wait for the lights to change. If I know my phone is in my bag but I dont know if its in the side pocket or buried under the rubble of notebooks, keys, biros and old sandwich wrappers, a small but discernible anxiety is set off. When it is in my hand as I walk, I am noticeably happier.
All of this is a measure of addiction, of course, and addiction in any context isnt healthy. But life is also stressful partly because of our addiction to phones and having an adult pacifier to hand clearly does something for our equilibrium.
Youll notice Im not addressing the functionality of your phone use. I mean, of course, looking at your phone serves the practical purpose of doing work on the move, or grouting your day with tasks that might otherwise eat into your time with your family at night. But lets not kid ourselves. When we get home, how many of us brush past the people we love to check if a bunch of people we havent seen for 25 years have posted new pictures of their children online? Clearly this isnt ideal.
Im trying not to be knee-jerk anti-internet and so, if there is an upside to this recreational abuse, its the tiny sliver of mental privacy being on the phone in public or in the midst of our families affords. No one knows what youre doing, why youre sniggering, or what you are scrolling through. One disappears on ones phone and while staying too long in the bubble is clearly bad, being fleetingly transported this way has some restorative quality that might be said to be productive.
Outside Trinity church, I had a revelation: 115 Broadway, the address of the place I was supposed to be going. Even with the reduced functionality one has after a solid decade of reliance on the maps on our phones, I am still able to find an address in a street I am standing in. But it was a salutary lesson. Staring at our phones for hours of the day has immense practical and some emotional advantages, but the withdrawal most of us feel at the slightest hint of separation, indicates they are benefits far exceeded by the cost.