Are Cell Phones Ruining Our Lives?

It’s amazing how much has changed since the late 1980s and early 1990s when Zack Morris (a character on the TV show “Saved by the Bell”) was given a cell phone the size of a sub sandwich, and phone boxes and antennae were installed in cars so people could have a “car phone.”

It has almost fully become a new world since then. And what’s also most amusing is how much the world revolves around cell phones and their smartphone brethren — phones like the iPhone and Droid. These smartphones are now barely used as phones, but rather pocket-sized computers.

In my work as a therapist, a common theme is people’s desire to repeat the lives they were raised with. For people over roughly age 28, when they think back to their childhoods and pick out the parts they want to repeat as adults, the images that stick out don’t involve computers or cell phones. There was less to be distracted by and more focus on the present.

The ideals that I often see in sessions are very similar (each having its unique variations). The vast majority of people want a spouse or life partner, most (not all) want children, a house or large apartment, vacations with family, family dinners, secure career or job, and friends. But most want one more thing: Connection. Not via a cell phone or Internet, but emotional connection with families, friends, partners, spouses, and children.

People now have so much access and connection to other interests that it has become easy to lose sight of and become distracted from our goals and ideals. For those who are in relationships, significant attention and time spent on social media (including chatting on the computer or texting) are distracting from the connection-potential of relationships. For those who are single, it’s become much easier to fall into a daily rhythm where our companion is our smartphone or computer.

The tendency for people to isolate has significantly increased, not because it’s desired, but because it’s just too easy now. There may still be the desire for a relationship, but it’s become harder to get motivated when it’s so easy to self-entertain now.

Are Our Smartphones Helping us Live in an Alternate Reality?

The Internet and smartphones have essentially become a way of living life in an alternate reality. How much attention is spent playing with a computer or cell phone rather than spending time with family or friends, or making friendly conversation in line at the store, or on public transit? How often are we out with a person or people and find ourselves answering text messages (or watching others answer theirs), or looking at Facebook or tweeting?

There are definitely benefits to having the access we have now. But for people striving for lives that mimic an age where the best form of communication was a cordless or a corded telephone, we find ourselves dreaming of realities that are hard to fit into today’s reality. The result is an increase in disappointment that things aren’t the way people had imagined. It can be lonely at times when we have 500 friends on Facebook; however, when wanting to hang out in person no one is there because we’re not used to talking by voice or in person anymore.

We feel comforted having many friends in our Internet world, but often we forget about creating a network in our non-virtual world as well. Reality has undergone a substantial change, and now we’re left to decide how much we want to shape our realities to fit our ideals, reshape our ideals to fit today’s realities, or some of both.

Obviously, the answer isn’t to abandon our social media gadgets. The trouble comes when our doses of alternate reality and real life become out of balance to the point where the alternate reality takes over. We find ourselves interacting more with the technology in front of us — even if there’s a person on the other side — as opposed to live people, including our families.

Disconnecting From Your Smartphone and Reconnecting With Your Life

So what do we do about this? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use the phone function. Smartphones have telephones! Many of us may find that an unnecessary function these days with so many ways to talk with our fingers, but make a goal to reach out to people who are important in your lives with your voice. It will increase the connection and quality of friendships and relationships, bringing them more live as opposed to behind the screen. Maybe instead of typing “Happy Birthday!” on Facebook walls, call them up.
  • Schedule your usage. If overuse is an issue, set specific times each day that you’ll allow yourself to be on the computer, check and respond to emails, respond to less-important texts, etc. Basically, set limits on the amount of time spent in alternate reality. (This may vary a bit if your work relies on up-to-the-minute info).
  • Schedule your activities. Rather than scheduling computer time, schedule free-time activities: 5pm-6pm, read; 6pm-7pm, play with the kids; 9pm-10pm spend quality time with my partner; 7pm – rest of evening, meet particular friends for drinks, etc. Scheduling the things you want to do can help ensure you’ll actually do them. Make sure to schedule the times and not only the date or activity. That’s what makes the schedule effective — not just knowing what you want to do, but when you are going to do it.
  • Leave your phone at home. Remember what it was like to go out and not have a cell phone or pocket computer? Try leaving your phone at home for a period of time just to take some time without being connected. Maybe take a walk without your phone, or go out for an evening without it. If you’re concerned about emergencies or need to coordinate meeting people, take your phone with you but keep it off unless you need to find your friends or are in trouble. It’s amazing the difference just turning off your phone can make.

In the end, a little disconnection hopefully will pave the way for a reconnection to those ideals and goals that are most important to you, even if those ideals were created in a world vastly different from the present.

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3 thoughts on “Are Cell Phones Ruining Our Lives?

  1. Gail swinney says:

    What’s the difference between using a mobile phone or being engrossed in a book? My husband had never had an issue with me reading all evening in silence or taking a book to bed but seems to dislike me looking at a phone. I don’t understand.

  2. Therapist Nathan says:

    Thank you for reading, and for your comment Gail! Your question is a good one — I think there are several possible angles to this. but overall, it depends on what people are looking for out of their family relationships. For some, reading a book for a couple hours a night is part of the routine (everyone does their own thing for a period of time — which it seems is what you’re saying). Where I believe a cell phone differs from a book is that phones are often carried with us and brought into other meaningful life moments, and they become distractors from those quality moments. Overuse of cell phones can create the environment for ADD type of behavior — we’re in a conversation, but a text comes through and we stop and look at the text and type back, etc. Sometimes one text turns into a conversation over text….and so it goes. I’m imagining that you don’t open a book and start reading while you’re in the middle of a conversation with your husband — which is why I think there’s a difference between the two. It’s become normal now to take our attention and focus from everything around us in order to focus on our cell phone world. I think cell phones are a great thing though. — The message I’m hoping to relay is the need for balance between having everything in the palm of our hands, while also giving appropriate attention to the current life happening in front of us. Thanks again for reading!

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