This morning I sat down at my breakfast counter to a creatively crafted omelet with broccolini and sharp cheddar, local-baked white toast, and raspberry jam from the farmers’ market. It was a simple feast, but a feast none-the-less. I took my first bite and looked out the window at a blue jay in the lower branches of a small pine. I idly wondered what it was doing. Was it eating the seeds of pinecones?
No sooner had I swallowed the bite, as this question drifted away, when an impulse seized me: I should check my email on my phone! The phone was lying within easy reach on the counter, facedown, the way I usually put it so I am not distracted by messages that appear. The ringer is off, so I am not hostage to every notification. Still, something inside compelled me to grab for it. But … I resisted. I consciously resisted, thinking, if I pick that thing up, I won’t taste this delicious breakfast I just made. I will mindlessly shovel the food in while my being is sucked into the screen and pulled in 20 different directions.
I finished my breakfast with mindful bites, allowing the salty cheesiness and the green goodness of the broccolini to rest upon my tongue. But as I ate, I wondered—what drove that impulse? Something inside me in that moment was not content to just BE, as if I harbor a fear of the mundane, of these moments in the actual physical world where nothing in particular is happening. Except, so much is happening! The jay in the pine, the snow sliding off the roof, the clouds of the big nor’easter rolling in, the water on the wood stove bubbling. Perhaps, too, I was driven by guilt. It was already 10 am on a Saturday morning and I needed to get to my writing client work if I had any prayer of taking Sunday off as a “normal” weekend day.
Getting “screened” is a ubiquitous cultural experience. It’s one thing to listen to a news story about technology addiction, and quite another to observe it in your own life, the lives of your friends, and then attempt to do something about it.
The other morning I stopped into my favorite bakery where they serve creamy lattes flavored with malted cardamom or ginger-maple. They have a range of cookies, scones, and croissants that keep me honest about making sure I get my body moving at some point each day, whether it’s a walk, yoga, or a fitness dance session. As I waited for my drink, I noticed a young couple sitting at a table facing the window to the street. Their backs were to me. What I saw was this: both of them were comfortably side-by-side, their heads and necks bent forward, and they were motionless. Intrigued, I repositioned so I could see what they were doing. They each had a large cell phone flat on the table, index finger on the screen, tapping and sliding. Neither of them spoke to the other. The whole 20 minutes I was there. Neither of them moved. As I passed on the way out the door, I glanced down and saw the comments bubbles and emojis of social media.
A couple weeks prior, I was in the same coffee shop meeting a dear friend for conversation. We were talking about pretty intense life challenges. But the whole time, her phone was face up on the table. At regular intervals she would jump as if jabbed in the back and pick up her phone. Then she would exclaim, “Oh, no, it’s my son. What does he want now?” Or, “It’s my husband. God, I hope he is okay!” The adrenaline rush that passed through her every time a message flashed was amazing to watch. It was clear that phone was keeping her, daily, in a constant state of mild anxiety. Needless to say, our conversation lacked a coherent flow with so many starts and stops. I felt genuinely concerned, with her being so jumpy from attending to every message.
I am not immune to getting screened, as my breakfast this morning illustrates. I am an information junkie. I LOVE to learn as much as I can about this crazy, fascinating world. This drive increases as I get older. I just want to have some sort of understanding of “What the heck?!” before I die. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is dark matter and what does it mean about reality? What is that jay doing in that pine tree on this frigid morning? You know, those kinds of questions. Because of this, if a wondering pops into my head, I reach for my phone. This is one of the cool things about technology—all this knowledge at our fingertips! Such a gift!
I also use my phone to track my calories, my client hours, and even to make sure I haven’t died in my sleep to lie undiscovered for days while my cat roams the house traumatized by my demise and hungry. Yes, there is now an app called Snug that allows people who live alone to quietly check in each and every day. If you don’t check in, the app texts your emergency contacts. Pretty cool!
There are also endless, fascinating podcasts to download that make long car drives a pleasure.
The problem is, once that little device is in my hands, there is no telling where I will end up or how much time will pass in that state of mental fragmentation within my benumbed body. Over time, I realized that certain activities such as surfing my Facebook wall often caused me to experience all sorts of negative emotions, such as guilt for not knowing that remote acquaintance lost her dad. Or a lonely pang of wanting a dog again after seeing a cute post of someone’s pup. Or a feeling of missing the train because I can’t afford to plan any exotic vacations. Or disbelief and discouragement over someone’s heartless condescension on a political thread.
On a recent New Years Day, I went for a walk in the woods. As we tend to do during moments of “beginning,” I was pondering my writing coaching and editing business and what I wanted to do concerning its marketing. I was pondering my life overall, what I wanted to discard and what I wanted to enact. I stood in a small grove of trees. It was silent except for a crow’s intermittent caw. Then the wind picked up and the trees made a soft sshhhh sound. I made a decision. I wanted a robust physical existence, not a robust virtual existence.
When one has a small business, or a band, and I have both, social media and an online presence are a must. But just how much, how often, and what kinds of online media can be a choice. I realized that most of my best clients come via word of mouth. I took my business off of Facebook. I never, ever had gotten any client through that page. Instead, I ramped up my LinkedIn for professional visibility. And I delved into the joy of my blog. That was it. No Twitter. No Instagram. I am busier than ever.
And, in one of the best decisions I have made lately, I took Facebook off of my phone. I thought about and researched deleting the account. Or going dark. But I have too many friends with whom I don’t want to lose contact. So I just took it off of my phone.
It was astounding how not having Facebook on my phone changed my life. Just one simple change like that. I no longer lose hours a day to all those screened emotions. I spend less and less time updating my persona online. I read more books. I write more letters (remember those??). I send more cards. I meet more friends for coffee. I make more phone calls and actually talk to people.
I no longer think in Facebook posts. I no longer respond in comments bubbles. My blogs are intentionally long, like real chapters or developed articles. I fear that the breadth and lack of depth of thoughts and of information is at the root of many serious current issues we face as humans. So many people knowing so little about so very much. Just a little of this. A little of that. How can we ever make informed choices?
Recognizing the ways that getting screened affects my life is a work in progress. I must remain aware, observing my own behavior and that of my friends and that of strangers. How is this habit affecting me, affecting us all? Our relationships? It’s fascinating. And a little horrifying. And definitely annoying. Of course, I am as easily sucked in as the next person. The wild and wacky world of quantum physics theories? Right there at my fingertips. On that device! Or maybe a good omelet recipe. Or a page on the behaviors of blue jays.
The irony is that it took 3.5 hours to create this blog about screen time.