5 Ways Cell Phones Are Destroying Our Lives
There are many positive, even wonderful things about cell phones.
A lifeline in a true emergency. The ability to track where someone is, again, in an emergency. I’m able to call my four close friends in Europe regularly and have long conversations with them for very little money, through apps like Viber or WhatsApp and thus, can remain closely connected with them.
So, of course, cell phones are not all bad. Like most anything, there are positives and negatives to our devices.
If used incorrectly though (and a lot of us do this), they can take away from our lives quite a bit. They can even hinder and damage our relationships, mental health, attention span, and lives in general. Here’s how.
Imagine if, when sitting with a friend over tea, I pulled a book from my purse, opened it, and began reading. Right in the middle of my friend telling me a story. I held up a finger abruptly and said, “hold on, I just want to check this and read what happens at the end of this page.” That would be so weird and so rude. My friend would rightly be aghast and confused, would feel dismissed and insulted.
We do this all the time with our phones.
Sherry Turkle, an expert on this topic, found that if a phone is even present in social interaction, it disrupts the interpersonal connection. If someone checks their phone (even “just once”), their companion feels less inclined towards personal disclosure with them. That they feel a sense of dismissal. It fractures the connection that was previously happening.
Even the mere presence of a phone, say, sitting on the table but not “checked” causes the other person to feel less likely to “go deep and personal” within that interaction. Knowing that at any minute, they might be cut off and momentarily dismissed when their conversational partner looks at their phone. It’s almost like when you are anticipating a noise to sound, one that has been sporadically in your apartment building or outside. You feel your body tense in anticipation of it. It becomes distracting. And then you are not as able to let go and relax fully.
So yes, “just grabbing your phone for a moment” and telling your friend, “sorry, I just need to check this,” cuts the connection and makes your companion feel crappy.
There might be a few people who don’t feel this way, sure. But most do. Whether they admit it to you or not, many people feel insulted, dismissed, rejected, and as though it’s just plain rude when you check your phone while engaging with them. Put the phone out of sight and away with people you respect and care about, period. You can check it later once you’re alone again. But when you are with people? Actually be there with them fully.
On the flip side, we also spend a lot of our free time sitting at home, scrolling social media, and texting. Why not pick up the phone and call your friend instead? You get a far richer interaction and emotional result from this than texting. And a lot of people spend hours of their day posting and scrolling on social media, yet, we wonder why we’re so lonely. Put the phone down and ask a friend to meet for a walk or a picnic in the park.
Your free moments for boredom, to let your mind wander, and for deep thinking
When I was a kid, I spent much of my weekend days or weekday nights playing outside with the other neighborhood kids, riding bikes, going to the park, running around, drawing with sidewalk chalk, you name it. Yes, I watched some television, though not a lot. There were a couple or even a few hours in most of my days during which I was just hanging out in my own company, with the chance to be “bored” so to speak. But really, to allow my mind to wander. This could include writing in a journal, walking outside, playing with stuffed animals, reading, and daydreaming.
This is crucial to our mental health, our creativity, and even to fully knowing ourselves. Having at least an hour, though ideally more, each day when you are not scrolling or tapping on your screen, when you aren’t watching T.V. or on a Zoom call, when you aren’t thinking about your to-do list, and when you are not on social media, but instead, it's just you, yourself, and you.
We’ve become a culture now, though, that with any “free” moment of space in our daily life, guess what we do? We reach for our phones.
Standing in the checkout line at the grocery store? You are likely scrolling on your phone. Sitting on the couch for 15 minutes. I bet you’re either watching T.V., are on your laptop, or doing something on your phone. Laying on a grassy expanse in the park on a nice day? It’s likely you’re also staring at your phone screen and tapping or scrolling. Out with friends for dinner? I bet at least a few times during the meal, you grabbed and looked at your phone. On a hike in the woods solo or with friends? I imagine you were also glancing at your phone, even if just to look at the map.
We are on our phones all. the. time.
I could go on and on with more examples. Sitting in a cafe alone, drinking tea and people watching? Doubt it. I bet you’re scrolling on your screen a lot of that time too. Riding the bus or train home? It’s almost certain you’re tap, tap, tapping away on your phone.
We are never in stillness, with just ourselves and our thoughts, without distraction. It rarely, if ever happens anymore.
This is harmful to us as human beings.
It means you are missing many of the details of the present moment and your life. It means you are losing the opportunity to think deeply, about situations in your life, your own feelings, choices you are making, who you are, and just about life in general. You do not know yourself as deeply as you could, without this space that entails zero distraction. To find it, you must allow yourself to be bored.
Without this space that includes zero distractions, you miss out on the chance for your mind to wander, which is crucial for creativity and problem-solving. Just…letting your thoughts do their own thing for twenty minutes, without any screens around and while hanging out in your own company.
“We fill our days with ongoing connection, denying ourselves time to think and dream.”
― Sherry Turkle (author and researcher of technology and cell phone use)
Your attention span
With the advent of the internet and smartphones, we now get much of our information in short bursts. We read our news via memes and tweets. We might skim one paragraph of an article before scrolling through the rest, rapid-fire, and then moving on. We check our email but then click on an intriguing hyperlink. Then we recall that book we wanted to look up so we open a new tab and go to Amazon. Then a text comes in so we grab our phones. You get the idea. Lots of jumping around.
Our attention nowadays is constantly fractured and pulled in multiple directions.
This isn’t good.
We are seeing (science says) a sharp decline in our ability to focus deeply on one task for a long period of time (say, an hour, two, or even three).
Think about the last time you sat down to read something, say, an article or a book. How long did it take before you were losing interest and found yourself distracted? This is because the internet and our smartphones are causing our attention spans to fracture and diminish.
Check out The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr for a phenomenal read on this topic.
The best way to solve this problem? Put your phone away, in another room entirely, for several hours a day. When you sit down to read at night, read for a minimum of 30 minutes, from a book (not on a screen). Ideally, make it an hour. Press yourself to stay focused (and, choose a book you actually find interesting). You can do it if you put your mind to it. When you begin doing these things daily, your ability to focus will grow stronger.
A lot of people claim to feel more anxious without their phones and that checking it helps them “feel better.” That seeing their notifications causes them to relax.
You might be surprised to learn that while research shows in the short term, we may imagine feeling more relaxed, over the long-term, checking our phones a lot actually leads to more anxiety and depression.
It’s almost like being addicted to smoking cigarettes. Ever heard a smoker say, “smoking relaxes me?” This is misguided and incorrect thinking. The smoker, who is addicted to nicotine, starts to feel jumpy, anxious, and irritable as their body is withdrawing from nicotine, which began when they finished their last cigarette. When they eventually smoke another cigarette, the reason they suddenly feel “relaxed” is because they got that hit of nicotine again, which their body was yearning for. Thus, cigarettes do not relax them. On the contrary, cigarette addiction causes them to feel anxious and irritable. It’s a constant up and down thing, taking in the drug, withdrawing and feeling antsy, getting the drug, and feeling temporarily better.
We could liken grabbing your phone and looking at notifications to this all the time, like a lesser version of this type of thing.
When you see and feel all sorts of notifications coming in and emails and texts, this can also add a sense of pressure and a sense of “I have all these things flooding in that I need to attend to and look at now.”
Remember our lives before cell phones though? We got along then just fine, in terms of work to-do lists and interactions with friends.
When we are ever reaching for our screens and devices, we are missing out. We are only half-present in the real-live experiences that are unfolding in front of us. We miss things. We only catch glimpses and half of it. We only go so deep emotionally with others, while the connection remains more shallow than it needed to if we put away the phone.
Consider how often nowadays during conversations with other people, that we grab our phones to “look something up” or “show them something” on it. You’ll be chatting with a friend who says something and then you might respond, “What? Seriously? No way, I’ve gotta Google that. Hold on.” Then, your friend stands there and waits while you tap away on your phone for a few minutes. The interactions put on pause, it’s been interrupted, both of you yanked out of it. And sure, you can probably get back into the interaction again, but maybe not fully. Maybe not with the depth and smoothness and wavelength on which you were before.
We use cell phones in all sorts of ways that remove spontaneity from our lives.
Going on a walk in the woods and constantly looking at our screens to check the map. Glancing at it a lot throughout the day “just to check the time.” Spending time with a friend but then seeing a work notification pop up, so now our mind is sort of on work again. Talking with a loved one, but craning our neck to see the text that just came in.
You experience much of your life through a screen, rather than in real-time
Imagine walking around and, during much of your daily life, you are looking at and experiencing everything while peering through a camera viewfinder. And, the entire time you’re doing this, you are thinking about what “everyone else” is going to think of this photo or this video clip you’re getting.
You are not really experiencing anything fully and firsthand then. Instead, the aim is what everyone else is going to think of it, and taking photos for the responses and approval of others.
Instead, you are filming or snapping photos, but are slightly removed from the situation.
You are experiencing it in a doctored, sort of contrived, distracted way.
You miss details this way.
You miss relaxing fully into the moment.
You miss living without agenda.
You miss certain sights, sounds, and smells.
You miss out on just being.