Last week, my office was a perfect storm of technological angst. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that spring has finally come to the East Coast. Everyone left hibernation and rushed out to connect with friends, only to discover half of them distracted by their phones. Whatever the root cause, I felt like I was in the movie Network (for those of you old enough to remember), observing the psychic equivalent of people throwing open the window and shouting, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Many of my fellow therapists are noticing the same: a stream of disenchanted patients coming in with questions, complaints and reservations about the effect of technology on their lives and relationships. I am actually glad about this. As someone who has been worried about it for a while, frankly, I hope it's the beginning of a backlash. At this point, I should probably issue the obligatory disclaimer about all the benefits of technology and the fact that it's here to stay. But I'm not in the mood. These days, all I see and hear about are the destructive aspects.
All of this has made me think that perhaps it's time to establish some basic "Rules of Civility" for technological use. These are circumstances in which you will absolutely, positively damage your relationships if you are on your phone. They are all born out of things my patients discussed last week, so it's really a group effort. Here, in no particular order, are the Mind to Mind Rules of Technological Civility, designed to protect your closest relationships, along with my thoughts on how they relate to parenting.
1. Never at Dinner.
This seems blindingly obvious, but I never cease to be amazed at the number of adults who do it. One of my patients went to a big birthday dinner last week and sat near two women who spent the entire evening on their phones. As she described the experience, "It was insanely rude."
Just no. No at any meal, but given what we know about family dinner and family connection, especially this one. Aside from the fact that it is indeed "insanely rude," it models terrible behavior for the next generation of parents who are likely to need all the internal discipline they can muster when it comes to managing technology. We shouldn't have to tell you this, but if your phone is that compelling, stay home and have dinner with it.
2) Never when caring for an infant or young child. And NEVER when breast or bottle-feeding.
A patient came in last week waving the LA Times article about "Distracted Parenting." This Boston study observed 55 caregivers and children during meals and witnessed 40 of them on a mobile device at some point. Interestingly, the least responsive caregivers were those who were typing or texting, not talking on the phone. Those on the phone still made eye contact with their children.
This study literally gives me a knot in my stomach. We all know that technology is changing our relationships, but the idea that it could alter the earliest relationship is truly terrifying. Study after study has demonstrated that infants and young children depend upon their mothers' faces for "social referencing" and emotional cues. It is one of the major ways in which they make sense of their world. Research has further demonstrated that when infants are unable to do so, in the care of depressed and unresponsive mothers, the mother-infant attachment relationship can be compromised.
3. Never when having a really good time.
My daughter came home from school last week and told me a story about hanging out with two friends, one of whom spent the whole time trying to get the perfect Instagram picture. As she said, "We only had half an hour, we'd just finished finals, it was the first nice day, and she ruined it for everyone. It was obnoxious."
When a 17-year-old girl is complaining about the intrusion of social media in her life, it must be bad. Remember mindfulness? If you find you are spending a lot of time and energy capturing the moment, you are probably missing it. And as I once read on Instagram, #yourinstagramlikesarenotyourfriends.
4. Never interrupt a conversation important to someone else to "just check" your phone or texts.
One of my patients described a scene last week where her teenage daughter came home after a terrible day, threw herself on her mother's bed and started crying about her "whole life." A few minutes later, her older sister came in and began to console her, only to be almost immediately diverted by a text message from her best friend asking where they were having dinner. When called to task by her mother, she responded with those famous last words, "Just checking!"
Again obvious, but again, scary. If you find that your phone distracts you when your child is in distress (real or imagined), it might be a sign that your primary relationships (not to mention your priorities) are mixed up. Which brings me to...
5. Never when you can't stop.
A colleague from Freedom Institute sent me the documentary No Time to Think, and last week, I finally watched it.
The filmmakers interviewed young men in recovery at the ReStart Internet and Technology Addiction Recovery Program. If there is anyone out there in the world who still wonders if technology is addictive, please find a way to see this film. I immediately recognized both the disease of addiction and the treatment protocol. And the scene where a young man tries to maintain a conversation with the interviewer while playing a video game is right up there with Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. If people in your life are expressing dismay at the amount you use technology, it could be time to go talk to an addiction counselor.
This is only a beginning, or as one of my patients described it, "a guide for minimum standards of behavior." But as the recent New York Times article pointed out, our children learn more from what we do than what we say. We need to provide some kind of example for responsible consumption of technology, in the same way that we monitor moderate drinking or limit television time. Here's a place to start.