This picture is a testament to the ubiquity of the smart phone. Most of you who are reading this article probably have your smart phone within arm’s reach right now! It’s the reality of our age that smart phones are integrated into our daily life. The question we have to explore about our relationship to our smart phones is this; are we in control? For some the answer is yes, they use their phone within appropriate limits to communicate, to find information, to provide healthy entertainment and so on. For many others the answer is no, they are definitely not in control of their smart phone. Instead, they are addicted.
An addiction can generally be defined as a pattern of behavior that persists and increases despite its harmful consequences. This is due to a dependency (physically or psychologically) on the thing to which one is addicted to reduce pain and increase pleasure. We begin to relate to the addictive thing as if it were the sole source of life. So we can get anxious about our access to it. We feel empty or depressed when we haven’t had that thing for a while. We want more of it more often. Anything that threatens access is seen as an enemy to be feared and hated. This is, dear readers, the way many of us relate to our smartphones. Are you in control of your smartphone? Or is it controlling you?
Right now, over 60% of teens own their own iPhone. The rest of them want one. We are experiencing a phenomenon in which our children are learning how to live with technology that wasn’t around when we were their age. This creates a dilemma: how are we as parents supposed to manage this with and for our children? There is no protocol handed down to us, no previous experience from which to draw. We really need to figure this out!
A good place to start is identifying for our teenage child (or ourselves?) symptoms of smartphone addiction. These yes/no questions may serve as strong indicators:
• Do you feel anxious when you don’t have possession of your phone?
• Are you constantly checking for social updates on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, email, and texts?
• Is there a compulsion to read a text as soon as you received it?
• Is there a compulsion to respond immediately to texts?
• Is there a fear of missing out (FOMO) if you don’t have access to your phone?
• Do you experience “phantom cellphone vibration syndrome”? Yes, people really do experience the sensation that their cellphone has vibrated when actually it hasn’t. This can also happen even when your cellphone is not “on” you.
• Do you automatically reach for your phone when bored or anticipating boredom (waiting in line, lulls in conversation).
• Do you reach for your phone when feeling anxious or lonely?
• Do you habitually isolate yourself from people physically present in order to use your phone in private?
• Do you use your smartphone when you are not supposed to? (i.e., texting and driving, in class, in church, at the dinner table, while going to the bathroom, in the middle of conversations with actual people).
• Do you sleep with your smartphone?
• Do you lose sleep due to smartphone use?
Most of us could answer yes to at least few of these. Why does this happen? The answer to this is kind of simple; we use the smartphone to avoid discomfort. Often, our attempts to avoid pain actually create pain of another sort. So, our attempts to avoid boredom, loneliness, and anxiety can actually create other pains of addiction, isolation, depression, and all sorts of anxiety.
What can we do? We have to be more intentional and mindful of ourselves within our own lives. We have to teach that kind of awareness to our children. We can do this by asking the questions; is this really what I want to be doing right now? What do I want to be about in this moment? What do I think getting on the phone will do for me, and does it actually do that? Am I living out my values in the current moment? We ultimately feel better (reasonably content) when we acting according to our values. We can better withstand discomfort when we understand that moments of boredom, loneliness, and discontent are inevitable and normal. When we try to avoid these moments of normal life, we actually disconnect from our own lives. We become unresponsive and unavailable to those around us. iZombies.
So here are some tips that we as parents should practice ourselves as well as enforce with our children. When it comes to our smartphones, practice the following good choices:
• Keep certain places as “phone free zones.” In bedrooms, bathrooms, at the dining table, during short local car trips, while working or in class or in school, put the phone away. Keep the phone far away from yourself during those times and in those places.
• If someone is talking to you, or you are in a conversation, put the phone away! Show through your actions that you value people over your phone.
• Don’t give in to Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). It’s a normal thought to have, but not really a sign that you are missing out. Choose to miss out now and then. Like watching a soap opera episode after months away from it, you’ll realize you didn’t miss much.
• Enforce a technology Sabbath for your family regularly. Cut the cord to all screens for an evening, day, or weekend.
• Don’t drive and text. Don’t bike and text. Don’t even walk and text. Stay aware of your surroundings.
If you can set boundaries for yourself and your kids in these ways, then you are in control of your smartphone. You won’t become an iZombie and neither will your children.