It starts innocently enough. My aunt wants to show photos from their recent vacation, my cousin is looking up the name of that restaurant we should go check out, and in a moment of boredom I skim my Facebook newsfeed. Before long I look up and realize all of my family is on their phones.
How did we get to this point? I’m only 24, and yet I feel this nostalgic longing for the days when we didn’t have our phones on us all the time, distractions just one swipe away. We used to spend the few hours we had together as a family talking, eating, exchanging gifts, and if we were lucky we had time to play our favorite Italian western themed game, “Bang!” (that’s another story).
In truth, we still do most of those things. But the phone – our camera, our fact-checker, our entertainer and personal slideshow – is never far away. In the lull between activities, when we could be interacting with each other or creating new family tradition, we tend to opt for our phones.
Am I the only one who sees this as a bad thing?
This was increasingly becoming a problem at my previous job. I worked with a study abroad program based in New Zealand, a hotspot for students and tourists alike. One of the distinctive features of my program was that we did not have WiFi on our campus, just one Ethernet cord. Which meant that if students wanted to access internet on their phones for Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or other apps, they had to bike into town to do that.
Many students found this lifestyle change a relief. It forced them to spend time getting to know each other better, and to be creative with the limited time they had living abroad. They became less consumed with documenting their adventures and more present in actually experiencing them. Between the accessibility to both the ocean and the mountains, the opportunity to adventure away from their phones was endless.
Then there were other students who exhibited what could be called “wifi withdrawal.” They spent most of their free time biking into town for the WiFi, busy either posting on social media or keeping in touch with people back in the States. They often were visibly less engaged with the rest of the group. And usually they were completely unaware that they were missing out on anything.
With the rise of affordable international phone plans, more and more college students have similar data plans in New Zealand as they would have at home in the States. Consequently, the gift of learning self-control in an age of information and stimuli overload is being lost. I watched students, when faced with a question they had no answer to (for example, the age of a pop singer) say that they had to know now. Whether at meals, midnight snacking in the kitchen, or even while out star-gazing, immediately the phones were pulled out. After a few minutes we were sometimes enlightened. Meanwhile, the conversation has moved on, and the question already nearly forgotten.
I’m neither trying to advocate that technology is bad, nor am I trying to be a proponent of some sort of “ignorance is bliss” rhetoric. But do we really need to document every good moment of our lives to show for all the world to see? Does the availability of limitless information (often unmemorable facts and opinions) really need to be available to us ALL THE TIME? Or are there things in life more sacred, which need to simply be experienced with our full attention?
The present is always eluding us. Yes, as you celebrate the holidays, you might currently be surrounded by all of your crazy family. Or you might even be traveling in a beautiful country far from home. But you won’t always be. And it’s moments like these that are easy to take fore-granted. The only person who can convince you to put aside your phone, and give yourself a break from your access to the infinite unknown, is yourself. You can challenge yourself to be present here, wherever you may be, and now. Because this moment, as mundane or awkward as it may be, will never come again.