We complain that we're bombarded with status updates and selfies, but we scroll through Instagram to avoid eye contact in the elevator. We groan when our phone buzzes, then check our emails when we're out to lunch with a friend. We roll our eyes at catchy Internet headlines, and then we stare at our iPads while our spouses recount the details of their day.
We are saturated with technology, yet we continue to invite it to the dinner table.
We wax nostalgic for a time before smartphones, yet when we climb into bed at night, it's our mobile devices we hold instead of our lovers.
Why can't we disconnect?
Our society has become so accustomed to instant access to communication and information, that we're paranoid we'll miss out on something if we put our phones down for just a few minutes. What if an old classmate announces their engagement? What if our friend abroad posts a photo of a breathtaking sunset? What if a breaking news story is tweeted or a funny video goes viral?
In digital time, anything that's been live for a few hours is already old news, and we don't want to be late to the game. Technology feeds into our nosiness and thirst for new information. So, even if we've already seen fifteen pictures of sunsets today, and even if we haven't seen that newly engaged classmate since mullets were a thing, we just keep refreshing our news feeds hoping that something new and exciting will appear.
The problem is, our need to feel constantly connected has taken the concept of "constant" to a whole new level. We attempt to replace our boredom in mundane situations (public transportation, the three minutes we spend on the toilet) with the entertainment that our screens provide.
But it's not just in mundane situations that our phones make an appearance -- and herein lies the problem. Our ability to access any kind of information or communicate with anyone on the planet allows us to believe we have limitless options at any given moment, including the irreplaceable moments with the important people in our lives. When our mobile devices are such a huge part of our lives that they become almost an extension of our bodies, we get the sense that we don't have to commit to the moment we are in. We don't have to commit to any one thing, because we could always be doing something else, watching something else, talking to someone else.
Have you ever looked around a room filled with your closest group of friends and realized that every single person was texting or checking social media?
We feel disconnected when we're not on our phones, and yet, when a screen is in front of our faces, we're actually missing out on something much more important.
We're missing out on the life that is happening right in front of us, the one that won't be there, floating around in cyber space, later on.
When you read your texts as your friend tells a story, you miss the agony that washes over their face when they insist that they're "fine." When you read an article while your significant other tells you about their day at work, you convey that you don't truly care what they have to say. When you stare at your screen to avoid awkwardness, you miss out on potential conversations with interesting strangers.
It's not that digital communication is wholly bad, it's just that it will never replace in-person interaction. You can re-watch a funny video a hundred times -- later tonight, later this month or later this year. You won't always have the chance to sit with a friend and have a face-to-face conversation. You won't always have the chance to hear someone laugh as they sit beside you.
Let's not forget that.
Next time you dine out with a friend, turn your phone off. Don't set it to vibrate and slip it into your pocket. Don't set it to silent and leave it on the table. Turn it off, leave it in the car and forget that it exists. See how much more you notice about your friend and your in-person connection when you don't have the distraction. See how refreshing it is to focus on the present moment and the present moment only. Practice this digital restriction enough times, and you'll likely find that you don't even miss your phone.
Next time you're on public transportation, try looking out the window instead of at a screen. Try watching the other people who sit beside you on your commute. Perhaps strike up a conversation with one of them. Who knows -- they might give you some kind of invaluable information. They might say something hilarious that you'll remember for the rest of your life. Will you look back just as fondly on your time scrolling through the same Instagram pictures for an hour? I'm willing to bet you won't.
There is a time and a place to check emails and news stories and viral cat videos, but the time is not all the time and the place is not anywhere.
Don't just stare at a screen watching other people live their lives. Don't spend your time double tapping a picture of friends laughing together when you could be laughing with someone in real life. Don't mistake the emptiness of staring at a screen for feeling connected.
It's not that we enjoy the enormous time-suck the digital realm has become. It's not that we prefer to look down at a three-inch screen instead of at the world around us. It's just that the compulsion to stay connected is a habit that's become hard to break.
Break it anyway.
Life is happening all around you. Don't look down -- you might miss it.