I feel a little badly for people who use their smartphones all the time. Not because they're missing out on "real life" and have devolved into non-communicative, self-absorbed animatrons, as has been bemoaned by media pundits, crunchy parents and out-of-touch grandparents everywhere, but because I completely understand the need to be always distracted.
When I was a child, it was a rare moment when I didn't have a book in front of me. I read everywhere -- in the car, in the bathtub, at the breakfast table, at a restaurant, in bed, at the beach, at the pool ... if there was going to be a chance for me to sneak in a few pages of whatever I was reading, be it novel or comic book, I was going to do it. With a little brother who annoyed me, and parents who seemed to be bickering all the time, reading was my escape into the world of Harriet the Spy, or Judy Blume's stories, or Archie and Betty, or my absolute favorite, Alfred E. Newman and MAD magazine. If I wasn't reading, I was probably watching TV and drawing or coloring. I was multitasking long before anyone had a word for it.
Every so often someone in my family would grow annoyed with my serene and disinterested presence at the dinner table and tell me to put my book away, but for the most part the adults in my life encouraged my reading obsession, even when it veered towards the inappropriate, like when I was reading John O'Hara at the age of 9, or Harold Robbins when I was 12. They all sort of shrugged and said, "That's Sharon," and moved on with whatever they were doing. I survived my detours into smut just like I bet most kids survive their peeks at nearly naked celebrities on the Internet.
Smartphones have given kids the license to escape just about anything, and who can blame them? As a former champion of the escape via reading, I empathize with those kids who are sitting at a table in a restaurant surrounded by adults who have nothing to say to them beyond "how is school?" Go ahead, play Minecraft! Scroll Instagram! It's more interesting than hearing about Aunt Sarah's boob job or Uncle Steve's latest business failure. Kids don't care about those things -- they didn't when I was little and they don't now. I do think toddlers watching videos at restaurants is a bit much -- if for no reason other than if I had to suffer through the exasperated waitress's sidelong glances at crumbled Saltines and Cheerios on the floor, those parents should, too.
As an adult, Smartphones are the perfect way to avoid awkward conversations with strangers while you are sitting at the car wash or in the doctor's waiting room. Sorry, but I don't want to hear about your car's engine problems -- or your body's engine problems, for that matter. Just the other day I was waiting at the pharmacy for a prescription and put down my phone for a second and the guy standing near me managed to tell me his entire life story -- from his right wing politics to the broken back he'd suffered in the army to his fervent belief that the Russians are coming to take over the United States. Had I been staring at my Smartphone -- or reading a book, for that matter -- he never would have started talking to me in the first place.
Smartphones are sort of like sunglasses for inside. If you don't want to engage, you slip your phone out and start looking for something -- the score of the Mets game, when Game of Thrones returns for the new season, how the stock market is doing -- and most people will simply leave you alone. That's not so bad, is it?
I do agree that keeping your phone on the table when you're socializing is not necessary, unless you are either a doctor or the mother of young children, in which case by all means, leave your phone next to you. However, if you're waiting for a text message about your next social activity, then leave the phone in your pocket or handbag. And if you're anything like my husband, you'll figure out a way to sneak a look or two at your phone when your favorite football team is playing (go Pack go!).
There are far worse things we could be doing than looking at our smartphones. Think of how much time people used to waste watching Bugs Bunny or Gunsmoke! Or talking on the phone instead of visiting with friends! Or listening to that awful Elvis Presley or those ragamuffin Beatles! Or sitting next to the radio for hours listening to The Lone Ranger or Buck Rogers! Or reading those infernal novels!
Continue back in time and there will be something perceived as changing the way we interact for the worse. We know there were people who feared that electricity would change the world for the worse. And how about those motor cars? And aeroplanes?
People will always talk. I am a wonderful conversationalist -- unless I don't want to be. And I would bet that's true for many people you see staring at their Smartphones. Sometimes, all we need is an escape from the cacophony around us. We are subject to televisions blaring, muzak, honking horns and inappropriately conversational strangers everywhere we go. A little YouTube or Snapchat can't hurt.
Previously published on Empty House Full Mind