It’s no secret that cell phones have totally changed the way we interact with the world around us. They’ve changed the way we connect with people from far away, and, sadly, they’ve changed the way we connect with people face-to-face.
This is not breaking news. We’ve all heard people talk about that family at the restaurant who were all on their phones during their meal. We’ve probably seen that family. Maybe we’ve even been that family. The “put your phone away” message is one we’ve heard a lot.
But what then? What actually happens when we put our phones away? Are all of our problems magically solved? If we dig a little deeper, we might find that solving this problem is a bit more complicated than just putting down our phones. Technology has a way of affecting the way we think, feel and communicate even when we’re not using it.
Buzzed from the Buzz
Let’s think back to before 1973, when cell phones were invented. If you wanted to write something to someone, you’d send a letter. Once a day, you’d sprint out to your mailbox, your stomach knotted with anticipation and the hope that you might find a letter waiting for you in return. You’d open the mailbox, and either you’d find a letter or you wouldn’t.
And then you’d be done, the rush of energy and anticipation would dissipate, and you’d wait until the next day and do it all again.
The feeling of excitement you’d feel when you opened the mailbox is caused by a chemical in our bodies called dopamine. In our brains, dopamine levels increase when we’re experiencing or anticipating some kind of reward (it also has many other purposes—read more about it here).
A reward could be anything, from a surprise gift to a delicious meal to oh, say, a text message. And the experience can literally be addictive. So when someone says they’re addicted to their phone, they’re probably right. But the thing they’re addicted to isn’t actually the phone itself. It’s the dopamine.
Every time we feel our phones buzz, we get a little dopamine “hit.” We read the text message/email/tweet in hopes that something exciting awaits us. Sometimes, our hopes are fulfilled. Usually they’re not. Either way, as soon as we find out, we crash. And then we start getting twitchy, eager to get our next fix as soon as we possibly can.
“Addiction” is a scary word. But, in this case, it’s an accurate one. It’s why we feel so antsy to read a text as soon as it comes in. It’s why we can experience emotional highs and lows over something as trivial as an email. It’s why sometimes you might think you’ve felt your phone buzz, when really it hasn’t. (It’s called “phantom vibration syndrome,” and it’s a real thing.)
And importantly, like most addictions, it doesn’t just affect us. Even when we’re not actually using our phones, they’re taking up space in our brain where they don’t belong, and that affects our ability to connect with other people. It makes it harder to focus on actually being with the people we’re with and giving them our full attention. Because even when our phones aren’t present in our hands, they’re present in our minds.
Made for Real Connection
Consider: How many different things can you think about at once? We could argue about whether or not we were designed for multitasking in general, but it’s totally clear that our minds were not designed for “multi-thinking.”
In your mind, try to add 187 and 236 while simultaneously reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in your head while also thinking of the names of as many root vegetables as you can. It’s just not how our minds work. It’s not how we were designed.
And if we step back a bit, we’ll probably understand why. God’s ultimate design for all of us involves connection—connection with Him, connection with one another, connection with creation, even connection with ourselves. And to connect meaningfully with anyone, we need to give them our full attention. So, God designed our minds to focus on one thing at a time.
It’s a gift to us, really. If we’re with someone, we should want to focus on them. God just designed us in a way that would make that easier.
Easier in theory, at least, and that’s where cell phones re-enter the picture. The addictive effect cell phones have on us doesn’t come with an on/off switch. So, when we’re with someone, technology has the potential to impact our interactions even if we don’t actually use it during the conversation. Fragments of text message conversations, snippets of that video we saw earlier, an overall buzz from our attention being pulled in so many directions at once—it all stays with us.
Technology has the potential to essentially become part of our brains and impact our relationships, even if our phones never leave our pockets.
So we should be asking ourselves: what can we do about it? There’s no quick fix, obviously. But paying attention to ourselves is a good place to start. How do we use technology (all the time, not just when we’re with people)? How much time do we actually spend on it? How does it affect us emotionally? Is it taking up more space in our brains than it should?
Cell phones make it easier to connect to people. But they make it much, much harder to form real connections with people. And real connection is what we were designed for. So if technology is getting in the way of that, we need to deal with it. If our phones are damaging our relationships—even when we’re not using them—then it’s time for us to start paying attention.