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Turn Off Your Phone at Dinner

... and other thoughts on being fully present in a distracted age.

David Hood, a journalism student at Hope International University, sleeps with his iPhone 4S under his pillow. As a journalist, he must remain easily accessible, but he struggles with how dependent he is on technology. He recalls the day his cell phone died while he was walking around Washington, D.C. Anxious about being out of contact, Hood charged the phone in his pocket from the MacBook Pro he had stashed in his backpack.

"I just never know when my editor is going to call me or send me an email,” he says. “I might get an email from somebody, breaking news, and I have to take it."

When it comes to how dependent young adults are on technology, Hood is not alone. His is just one story that tells of its addictive power, but is its constant presence eroding our ability to be fully present?

According to “Americans and Their Cell Phones,” a September 2011 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 83 percent of American adults own a cell phone and 35 percent of those own smartphones.

But for those who still prefer basic technologies, it's easy to get left behind.

"You talk on the phone?"

Chelsea Smith, a 2011 art graduate from Azusa Pacific University, still has a basic flip phone and limited texting. When she needs to communicate with friends or family, she writes handwritten letters or makes phone calls.

During college, Smith says she was left out of events and gatherings with friends because she didn’t get a texting plan until late in her junior year. Her friends would send out mass texts and sometimes forget to call her with details.

"When I’d tell people, 'I don’t get texting; you have to call me,' they’d be like, ‘What? I have to call you?’" Smith recalls. "I mean, your phone texts and it calls people. Is it really that strange?"

Pew Internet reported in “Americans and Text Messaging” that 53 percent of cell phone users from ages 18 to 24 prefer receiving phone calls over text messages. Stockton Brown, a senior English major at Asbury University, is one of those people. While texting is convenient for quick conversations, phone calls are more personal and require more attention.

“If we’re going to talk, I’d like it to be via a phone call,” she says. “I just use texting in the way people would leave Post-It notes.”

Technology can hinder meaningful conversations and distract people away from being attentive. Timothy Muehlhoff, a communications professor at Biola University, says the degree of intimacy we desire to cultivate in our relationships dictates our level of technology use.

When technology is turned off and put away, face-to-face conversations cultivate intimacy and add depth to relationships. Cultivating an attitude of mindfulness is one way to fight against the need of simultaneously managing multiple conversations. “More than a technique, mindfulness is an attitude of, 'I’m going to be fully present with you,'” says Muehlhoff. “It’s the hard work of being attentive. We’re losing that.”

Smith agrees. While she uses technology about two hours a day, her roommates use their laptops more often. She remembers a time not too long ago when they invited a friend over, and instead of talking to each other, they focused on their individual laptops. Looking around the room, she says she thought it was strange no one was talking. “Quality time is something that’s important to me, so when they’re always on their devices, it’s like that quality time isn’t quality anymore,” she says. “It’s just time.”

Resisting the attraction to multitasking

The convenience and distraction of technology is slowly edging out our ability to be fully present, and it seeps into spiritual disciplines like silence and solitude. Only 10 percent of adults and 6 percent of teenagers intentionally take a break from technology once a week, according to Barna Group’s May 2011 study “The Family and Technology Report: How Media Is Helping Families—and Where They Need Help."

Matt Boivin, a sports clerk at the Lansing State Journal, says he is intentional about leaving his cell phone at home when he goes on a run or works out. Since technology is part of his daily routine, leaving his phone behind is sometimes a struggle. He says he feels almost incomplete without it. “Practically speaking, it’s not necessary to have technology on you all the time,” he says. “But just the way my mind works, it’s like, well, what if I missed something while I’m away from it for 10 minutes?”

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The need to multitask and constantly be in contact with people spills over into quiet times with God. Christians already struggle with observing the Sabbath, and the attraction of technology only makes it harder to rest.

“Be still and know that I am God," Muehlhoff quotes from the Psalms. "Have we lost the ability to be still? That would concern me if we have." To break away from the need to multitask, Muehlhoff suggests taking short sabbaths throughout the week. He says to start with a Sabbath day, which could be as short as an afternoon. And then begin cultivating small sabbaths throughout the week. For example, instead of listening to the radio while driving to work, Muehlhoff often uses that time to pray. “I’m not saying, ‘Let’s go back to an Amish view of things,’ but Plato said you can’t open your soul to anything and not be affected.”

So ... how many times did you check Facebook/Twitter/your phone while reading this?

Amy Seed is a freelance journalist from California. Connect with her on Twitter (@aseed).



Nic Vargus commented…

David Hood is a weird name for a her.


susie klein commented…

I know that it may be seen as rude to leave a comment about one's own blog, but the subject is addressed and I'm doing it anyway! :)


Trevor Drinen commented…

Bottom line: cell phone etiquette & respect for the person right in front of you.


Michele commented…

I recently went to a Christian conference in the state where my daughter lives and stayed with her, saw her in the evenings. I see her only once or twice a year so you'd think that would be prime time. So why was I checking my smartphone off and on every hour or so while with her? I called her to apologize when I got home, when I realized the addiction.

Elizabeth Hallman


Elizabeth Hallman commented…

The book recounts the story of Dorothy Gale and her dog, Toto, who discover themselves in the Land of Oz after their home is swept off in a tornado. This is a nice transition read-aloud ebook for a kid who's used to picture books.
Profi Direct

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