Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Is Your Phone Smarter Than You Are?

First published in  The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, Sept. 19 by Sara Mattinson.

At a recent end-of-summer family barbecue, there was one notable absence.
“Do you realize there weren’t any cell phones there yesterday?” my mother pointed out. “It was really nice.” 
I hadn’t noticed because they weren’t interrupting our fun. Not once did a phone chirp the arrival of a text. None of the kids were holding a phone in one hand while tossing washers with the other. Not a single person missed the party because they were updating their status or tweeting about how much fun they were having. 
I hadn’t noticed because I was busy dodging wayward washers. 
Not having a smart phone myself, the absence of them doesn’t register with me. It’s their presence that catches my attention. Because it usually means I don’t have someone else’s.
We need to take a serious look at the fact smart phones are addictive. What are we doing to ourselves that cigarettes, fried food and alcohol haven’t already done? And why do we want to do that to children?
Consider an article in Maclean’s about the high rates of stress, anxiety and suicide on universities campuses. According to the article, taking time for introspection is key to getting over the hurdles of life but that time is missing in the lives of most students: “Students aren’t left alone with their thoughts on the bus to school or the walk to across campus. They’re texting, listening to music, checking Facebook or Twitter, often all at once. There’s no time to mull over difficult, complicated emotions.”
Add to that the conclusion of a psychiatry study out of England: Digital multi-tasking slashes your IQ by 10 points while you’re doing it. 
An article published in The Economist magazine states that “several studies have shown what ought to be common sense: People think more deeply if they are not constantly distracted.”
It’s bad enough to realize how many adults are driving vehicles, running offices, inputting our vital statistics, and operating on our loved ones with lowered IQs and heightened anxiety as a result of their smart phone obsession; it’s worse to know we could be exposing our children to that when their brains are still soft and moldable. 
Smart phones and tablets are starting to make television look good. 
My best friend’s daughter came home from her first day of Grade Six at a new school in a new town in northern Ontario, population 3500, and announced, “Mummy, I need a cell phone. Everyone else has one.”
To which her wise mother replied, “I don’t have one.”  
Like my BFF, the reason I don’t have a cell phone is that I don’t need one but this column isn’t the whingeing of a Luddite; I check email, I maintain a blog, and I use the Internet extensively. How did we ever work and communicate without it? Technology is my friend but not my best friend; I don’t tell it everything and I don’t think it’s wise.  
Yet I may be approaching that slippery slope on a Crazy Carpet. A brand new tablet was unboxed in my house last weekend. The reason I have one of those is simpler than the gadget itself: My home is being swamped by magazines and e-reading appears to be the road to clutter rehab. 
Having never had an addiction -- not even to chocolate (but only because it gives me pimples) -- this could be the one, baby. 
Already I can see why we love these gadgets: They are very cool. Touch! Swipe! Apps! A world clock at my finger tips! But really, what do I need that for when we already know it’s five o’clock somewhere?
That’s the power of cool, easy-to-use gadgets. They seduce us with limitless “fun” distractions  that ultimately consume time and energy but don’t enhance our lives. They make us believe we are connected to each other and to the world but we end up more isolated than ever. In the end, social media ends up being more about quantity than quality. Is every Facebook comment and every Twitter tweet worth the time it takes to read it? 
When you could be using that time to practice your washer toss technique. 
Speaking of which, I really enjoyed playing with my great-nieces and great-nephew but they are growing up so fast, they may be ones arriving at next year’s end-of-summer barbecue with a smart phone that is way cooler than washer toss.
Maybe there’s an app for that. 

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