Disconnect to Reconnect: Smart Phones and Relationship/Family Dynamics

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Until last month, I used to pride myself on having a dumb cell: no email, not even a camera. My reasons were part practical (I live & work amidst weak cell signals) and part strategic (I wanted to limit distractions in my already busy life).

What happened? Like countless gadget-lovers before me, I succumbed to the seductive allure of a smart-phone, using my daughter’s entry into pre-school—now I have to be more accessible ICE (in case of emergency)!—as an excuse.

Presto! I was reminded of the wisdom of my dumb phone on Sunday, as I sat in the waiting room at Pediatric Urgent Care (PUC) and spied on other families.

Normally, I try not to spy. Really!

It’s just that S, who’d complained of an earache earlier, fell asleep en route and was napping in the car in the parking lot.

I did the PUC check-in and waited for my wife to text me that S was awake and ready to see the doctor. So I watched and, um, eavesdropped on other families. What else was I supposed to do at PUC; read Elmo books solo????

Family #1: A mom, dad and toddler walk in. The dad and his son sit on a bench, while mom does paperwork and then sits down on the opposite side of her son.

Family #2: A mom, dad and toddler enter. Father and son sit on another bench, as mom is busy at the desk. She then sits down on the opposite side of her son.

Similar scenarios, right? Except….

Dad#1 was already on his phone as he walked in; he then typed on his cell seated next to his son—who asked lots of questions that went unanswered—and tapped and typed, typed and tapped, until a nurse ushered the whole family inside.

At least Mom#1 wasn’t on a phone. Yet, as soon as she sat down, she started tapping on her cell too and, soon, got irritated with her son for asking persistent and (all-too-familiar to toddler parents) repetitive questions.

Every once in a while Mom#1 tossed one of her son’s queries to her husband, who—texting away—offered a partial response. The parents looked at each other, maybe, two or three times (and at least one of those looks involved an irritated you-deal-with-the-kid eye-roll), and they visually connected with their child only a wee bit more.

Let’s connect with our kids and spouses, not our phones

What of Family #2? Neither parent had a cell in sight and, lo and behold, they engaged with each other, exchanged smiles, and both played and chatted with their son.

My scientifically ungrounded conclusion? Smart phones make us dumb parents, not to mention distracted spouses.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m overreacting. It’s a chicken-or-egg issue.

Maybe Mom#1 and Dad#1 were already stressed with each other, with being at PUC, with something else I can’t begin to guess at, and the phone thing was a symptom of their discomfort; in other words, their phone-behavior was the egg.

Okay…but what about their kid? What about the little guy who had an arm injury that brought them there in the first place?

Whether his parents’ phone-focus was symptomatic of relationship or other strain, or whether their relationship got stressed because they’d rather engage with their phones than each other, means diddly-squat—I repeat, diddly-squat—to their child.

Either way, they weren’t connecting with him and, instead, put their time, energy and attention into their phones. What the heck’s smart about that?

In the days since PUC, I’ve seen a TV ad for a new smart-phone that chronicles all the great things people miss, or the silly things we do (ex. one guy drops his phone in a urinal while texting) because we’re so engrossed in this hand-held technology.

What’s the tagline? It’s time for a phone to save us from our phones: designed to get you in and out and back to life.

I’ll admit it: I think it’s smart advertising; I appreciate the intended irony.

But, unless we believe buying our kids their own hand-held gadgets is the best bet in this scenario—meaning, unless our priority is to ensure we get to keep focusing on our cells to the exclusion of our spouses and our children—then getting a faster phone will be anything but smarter.

Which leads me to my own tagline, a clunky, not-so-witty but heartfelt one:

It’s time for us to save ourselves, our relationships and our families from our phones, and stay present in our lives, lest they pass us by while we’re texting!

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