I may have mentioned in this space before that I am under some pressure to get a cell phone. I have resisted for years, and certainly have no desire to have one, but the question has come up again, so I’d like to reflect briefly on my concerns, and solicit advice of those willing to offer it.
Of all the reasons that have been given me for having a cell phone, only one carries weight in my own mind: in case of emergency, it would give our children’s caregiver a reliable way to reach me while I am at work. True, I have a desk job, and amidst all the desk clutter is a telephone, but sometimes I am in the lab, and sometimes I am out and about, and at those times there is currently no way for someone to reach me, and there is no-one else whom the caregiver can call.
Yet there are a number of reasons why I am reluctant to have one.
First, I fear cell phone creep. It is one thing to say that you’re getting one only in case of emergencies, but another to confine its use to emergencies. I actually used to have a cell phone in my car when I was travelling long distances in the winter; it was in my glove box in case I went into a ditch and needed to call someone, but nobody knew the phone number (not even me), and so there was no problem with creep. Having a phone so that others can call me is another situation entirely: creep will be hard to avoid. Emergencies get defined down.
I suppose a deeper reason why I do not like cell phones is the reason many people do like them: they keep one always connected. I am a person whose well-being is fostered by doses of solitude, and I treasure those relatively rare occasions on which I can “disappear”, maybe just for half an hour, in order to be quiet and think about things, or to listen attentively to something beautiful, or to pray. That sense of being alone, well and truly, gives me space to breathe, and is unfailingly refreshing. Whether it is actually important for me to be “unreachable” at those times is, I must admit, debatable, but it feels important. I feel as though the weight of that phone in my pocket will be a burden on my mind.
On the other hand, who am I kidding? It is not as though dozens of people are clamouring to reach me; my social life is almost entirely domestic. It probably would be feasible to restrict the phone-aware social circle to my wife, our children’s caregivers, and my in-laws. Is it churlish to inconvenience them on account of my rather vague, and perhaps rather selfish, reservations?
But mention of our children raises another set of issues. There is now quite a lot of evidence about how digital media, and cell phones in particular, have a powerful, and, to my mind, powerfully deleterious, effect on the lives of teenagers. This is something that people of my age, who did not grow up with this technology, probably do not fully understand. Cell phones, particularly those with “texting” capabilities (which these days is pretty much all of them) have made it very difficult for teenagers to remove themselves from their social circles, to “turn off” the peer pressure, to leave that world outside and simply be alone or with their families. It used to be that one came home from school and, apart from a few phone calls perhaps (on a phone shared with others), one was at home with one’s family until morning. Now one’s friends are always potentially present: whether one is riding in the back seat of a car, or whether one is in bed at midnight, the “texts” keep flowing. This is bad enough at any age, but for teenagers, for whom peer social pressures are already so powerful and dominating, it is really very troubling. How will these young people have time and space for quiet reflection, or for prayer, or for simply being themselves, embodied, attentive to those around them? How much more difficult will it be for parents to guide their children through those often difficult years when there is no time or place in which the parents and children are really together, to the exclusion of others?
And there is, of course, also the issue of addiction to “texting” and other social media. They are not called Crackberries for nothing. This is a concern not only for me as a parent, but also for myself, for I know that I would not be immune to the Pavlovian lure of the beep.
The issue of social media and children is not the topic of this post, but I raise it in this context because, although our children are not teenagers, they will, God willing, be so one day, and I feel that I will be better positioned to moderate the use of these technologies if I am not myself a user of them. I will be able to show them, by my example, that one does not need them, and that in fact there are things to be gained from not having them. It can be argued, of course, that there is a middle ground between abstinence and addiction, and that it would be better to model the middle ground. This may be true. My feeling is that it’s better not to let the foot in the door. This may be true.
At the end of the day my concerns about cell phones, smartphones, and so forth circle around two related points: first, I am concerned about the way these devices can potentially alter our lives at a fairly deep level, from erasing (at least in principle) our solitude, to changing the way we relate to our friends and family, to mediating our very experience of the world; and second, I am concerned that once one crosses the Rubicon to join the cell phone culture, it is very hard to get back.
I am interested to hear, if anyone cares to offer, opinions about these matters. If you, like me, do not have a cell phone (and I am sure there must be at least four or five such people left), why not? If you do, how do you feel about it? If you are a parent, how do you manage your child’s access to technologies like this? Do you?