Why We Can’t Put Our Phones Down
There is a certain cultural phenomenon that everyone with two eyes and a smartphone has experienced. I just witnessed it again, for the umpteenth time, at a choral concert at my daughter’s elementary school.
As the curtains opened on a three-row arrangement of ebullient second-graders, hundreds of cellular devices lit up in the audience. Moms and dads morphed into a clamoring mass of parent paparazzi, frantically searching for the record buttons on their smartphones and iPads.
It was a ridiculous scene, the children squinting and rubbernecking to find their parents’ faces amid the sea of flickering screens. Even more appalling, as the children performed, many parents watched the performance through their devices. The actual children were not being seen — the parents were viewing a digital reproduction of the performance as it unfolded right in front of them.
Why do we do this? What is this compulsion to record our child’s every move on our smartphones? Why do we dilute the potency of life’s most precious moments by watching them through our gadgets? I think it has something to do with repression.
Repression is a universal psychological fact. Our psyches work hard to hold their centers of gravity, often by disallowing the experience of extremes. When an impulse, thought, memory or feeling is deemed too intense or too threatening to indulge, it is banished from consciousness, sentenced to live out its days in the darkest grottos of the psyche.
Keeping this material repressed, however, costs valuable psychological capital. A tax is paid in the form of symptoms — acute or generalized anxiety, low-grade depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors — each of which shrinks the range of our experiences with the world. Like an aperture that closes on a camera lens and blocks the light from entering, the scope of our conscious awareness is condensed in order that we can go about our lives without breaking too much of an existential sweat.
Better to compulsively vacuum the living room carpet, for instance, or obsess about the color of the office furniture, than be constantly conscious of the fact that we are someday going to die. And the fact is, nothing reminds a person he or she is going to die like watching his or her child sing Disney tunes at a school concert.
Yes, a morbid sentiment, but the morbidity is precisely the point. Along with the exhilaration we feel watching our child do something significant, there is often a semi-conscious dose of dread, too, because just as the moment announces itself in all its grandeur, it vanishes forever. As the curtains open on our child’s performance, we are faintly reminded that the curtains are slowly closing on our lives, and once we catch a whiff of that, pronto presto, up go the smartphones. If we can capture, like lightning bugs in a jar, those singular shining moments that punctuate our lives and hold them captive in our devices, we can enjoy the illusion that we control the ebb and flow of time. We can tap the glass and watch those precious moments jump to life. We can stockpile them against the specter of death.
Make no mistake, however: By repressing the fear of death, we are losing out on life. We are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Our intolerance for pain gives way to a disavowal of joy. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term Jonah Syndrome to describe this phenomenon: “So often people in … ecstatic moments say, ‘It’s too much,’ or ‘I can’t stand it, or ‘I could die’…. Delirious happiness cannot be borne for long.” Since we fear death, we cannot stick our necks out too far into life. The fear of death backfires as a fear of life, and we anesthetize ourselves with, among other things, our gadgets.
After having witnessed the same obsessive tendency of people to record with their smartphones, poet Michael Rosen said: “It seems more important to have been there, than to actually be there. More significant to have something to share/post of having been there … than to be immersed, abandoned, open — vulnerable even — to the power of the performance.”
Our impulse to detach ourselves from the intimacy of the here and now, to choose recorded history over present-moment experience, devalues our encounters with the world, reducing them to mundane Instagram posts and Facebook uploads. And worse, only in retrospect do our experiences earn a fair market value (How many “likes” did I get on Facebook? How many “hits” did I get on Youtube?). Life depreciates into safer, blander, bite-sized portions that won’t shake us up too much.
It seems to be a fact: At times, we are only comfortable having our reality reflected back to us in small, homeopathic doses through four-inch wide screens with scratch-resistant glass. There are methods to increase our tolerance (psychotherapy and meditation, to name two), but most of us seem content to shrink from the potency of life.
Thoreau lamented: “To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake.” Which is to say, there are very few of us who are quite alive. Even as we seek to heighten the definition of the picture on our smart phones (mine is 1920 x 1080 pixels — what’s yours?), we prefer a lower-definition version of our lives.
Comedian Louis C.K. summed it up perfectly during an interview with Conan O’Brien: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not do anything. That’s what the phone is taking away is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.” Ever the existential psychologist, C.K. understands that we use our devices to regulate the intensity of our emotional lives: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kinda satisfied with your product. And then you die.”
Maybe, but think of all the neat videos we’ll leave behind.
Recording a concert photo available from Shutterstock
Fisher, E. (2018). Why We Can’t Put Our Phones Down. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-we-cant-put-our-phones-down/