We Can Outsmart the Smartphones

We had dinner in a hip Soho restaurant the other night. There was a group of trendy young people at the table next to ours. I normally don't watch other people at restaurants but their unusual activity grabbed my attention: Whomever came to the table turned off their cellphone and put in the centerpiece. As it seemed like a game and included a cellphone, my kids and my husband were curious to see what was going on,too.

We then started chatting and they told us that we were right. They were playing a game -- the "phone stack" game. Everyone puts their cellphone in the center and whoever checks it first loses. All of them were having trouble putting down their phones and started playing this game to create a cellphone-free zone for themselves for their sanity. What a pleasant way for friends to help each other manage a behavior they'd like to change. It was a great inspiration for all of us. My husband and I grumble a lot that our kids are addicted to their gadgets, but, needless to say, we know just how attached we are to our cellphones, too.

Nowadays, it's a problem for everybody. A friend of mine moans about her teenage son, saying, "When I was growing up my parents' biggest concern was drugs, yet nowadays electronic gadget have taken their place." Then she announced that she had started taking her son to a psychologist to help him to conquer his addiction. Since children can easily imitate bad habits, it was suggested that she try not using her cellphone and digital devices as often to encourage him to do the same, and she confessed how challenging it is for her.

Have you seen the movie Disconnect (2012)? To me, the movie is Matt Dillon's Crash (2004) in technology while exploring how people experience the problematic sides of communication technology of our time by following three stories. The message is same to me: We act by what we see(or interpret) but the truth can be totally different. All of the conflicts and relationships in those three stories are initiated through laptops, iPads and cellphones. People fall in love, take advantage of each other, disclose their deepest secrets and even commit a crime without meeting face to face. It moved me. It was so real. I believed the lives of these people. I was convinced, sadly, that anybody could do radical things in the face of crisis. "Disconnecting" would give us a luxury we need. We have to realize that when we disconnect from our digital life, we connect better with our most loved ones in real life.

Even though we are more sophisticated and more technologically confident than any generation in history, we're still so naïve and vulnerable. If we don't want technology to continue to burrow its way into our lives and threaten to erode our personal space, we should find a way out. We should have a digital detox before it is too late. We need to create device-free zones, whether it is with a physical barrier such as banning devices from the dinner table or having a curfew and turning off devices by a certain hour. Whoever manages to digitally detox, they regain their sanity and improve their relationships with loved ones.

If you are not a doctor on call, try not to take your cellphone to a gathering with friends. I have received an invitation that says, "Please don't bring your cellphones, bring your cameras instead." I think there is an important message here. Maybe this will become normal soon as I've heard that there's a new trend for party planners to add this type of suggestion to the invitations.

After that dinner in Soho the other night, I researched the "phone stack" game. I found that it has been around for a year. Last year, Brian Perez, a dancer in Los Angeles, posted the idea on his Tumblr page and since then it has spawned tons of blog posts and an entry in the Urban Dictionary. This shows that many people are aware of the problem.

Yes, we have to admit that public cellphone use has reached an inappropriate level, so it's about time to remove ourselves from that. Let's not create cells for ourselves through our cellphones. OK, those beeping gizmos have become the most important devices in our lives; most of us cannot survive without a cellphone as we use it as a calendar, an alarm clock, a music player and even a camera aside from the text, email and Internet functions. However, they don't leave us any personal space. We should ask the question: "Do we really have to be accessible 24/7?" My answer is no. How about yours?

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This article was previously published in Today's Zaman.