By Nora O. Lozano
Some Sundays ago I went to pick my son up from his church youth meeting. I was not paying much attention to the time, and until I opened the building door, I realized that I had arrived too early. I went to the first available room, and another mom was there, looking at her phone. I sat across the table from her, she noticed me, and continued using her phone.
After some time, she said,“I am sorry that I kept looking at my phone, but I had to solve this urgent matter.” Then, she asked me: “Do you have a problem at home with your kids and their phones?”
I wished she had not asked that question. I felt tempted to lie by saying: “No, we do not. We manage technology quite well.” Instead, in a leap of honesty I said: “In my house, my kids are not the problem, I am the problem. They are the ones who complain about me and my phone.” She looked at me in a kind, understanding way, so I felt safe to continue sharing: “You see, I have two email accounts linked to my phone. I have regular messenger and WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends near and far. I have Skype to talk to my family in Mexico, my camera and Facebook. I have two Bibles, books and access to my favorite blogs. I also take/record notes on my phone for future writings/lectures/sermons. So, it is very easy for me to stay immersed in my phone’s world.”
She replied by quoting a friend: “This little thing [a phone] can keep us connected to far away people, but at the same time, unfortunately, it can keep us disconnected from the people who live with us.” I could not agree more with her statement. (Conversation used with permission).
These issues of connection and disconnection have become a challenge not only for me and my church friend, but for many others. It is common today to observe people, at places that once were considered optimal spaces for personal communication such as restaurants and home dining/living rooms, engaged with their phones/tablets, instead of with each other.
I appreciate the efforts that are done to bring awareness to this situation. Recently I attended a weekend retreat where part of the goal was to stay disconnected from mobile devices. While some attendees might have fulfilled this goal, I found that many others were willing to take the risk of being penalized to stay connected to their phones/tablets. I must confess that I checked my phone several times, but fortunately was not caught.
As the retreat speakers evaluated/criticized the use of phones/tablets, it became clear to me that the issue is not so much the devices themselves, or if a person should have them or not. Smart phones and tablets are here to stay. The real issue for me has become twofold: the user of the device, and the loved ones who are around this user.
A recent Huffington Post article describes a Baylor University study that relates the use of smart phones and addictive behaviors, depression, mood changing, and inattentiveness. It also mentions other research connecting excessive phone usage with poor sleep and loneliness. While the Baylor study involves college students, I wonder how technology is affecting people of all ages.
Regarding the user of the device, it is important to try to discern the relationship between the person and the device. Is it a healthy, productive relationship? The answer requires identifying why I am using my phone in a particular moment and space, and what is the underlying need of using it. Here are some questions to consider:
Am I using my phone because:
• I am hiding from something that I do not want to deal with?
• I am avoiding a conversation that I need to have?
• I have a task that needs to be done and I am procrastinating?
• I am bored or lonely? If so, what can I do about it?
• It seems easier to deal with people who are far away, than with the ones who are close by?
After all, as I jokingly tell my kids: “These phone friends who are far away do not ask me for money, neither for food, nor do they complain.” Well, some complain regularly, but it does not affect me directly.
But, if it is true that it is more attractive to spend time with those far away people than with the ones around me, why is that? What is needed to change this situation? What work do I need to do in my personal/family life?
On the other hand, I think it is also important to hear what the people around us are telling us. Even if my relationship with my phone is healthy and productive, is it too much for the people around me? Do they feel neglected or ignored?
Like many gifts that we receive, our digital devices can be a blessing or a curse. I am thankful for my church friend’s disconcerting question because it moved me to do some reconsidering. My new goal for myself is to continue finding ways to stay close to my favorite far away people: writers, bloggers, biblical characters and their stories, family, and friends who I can connect with through my phone. Meanwhile, I must also recognize when I need to stop and pay attention to myself and the people who are physically around me.
As with many things in life, this goal is a matter of balance. So, the more that I become aware of these simple questions and their answers, the more sensitive I become to my own issues and needs as well as the ones of those people who are close by.
Looking around, I suspect that I am not alone in struggling with this issue. May God help us to become wiser as we deal with the challenges of embracing both the gifts of technology and personal relationships, near and far.