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Facing the challenge of Smartphones

Others -> Society

My family and I moved house earlier this week. So everything is new right now, we observe everything. Where's the nearest supermarket? What's the best way to get to the office? What is the neighborhood like? Those of you who have moved with kids you know how you look at everything very differently for a while, until a certain routine sets back in.

So while being in this "observing everything" mode, I also noticed something again that I kind of got used to by now: It's how busy people keep themselves with their Mobile Devises. Everybody keeps him-/herself busy all the time. People watch movies. They text and read unimportant blogs from people they have no relationship with and no interest in knowing what's going on in their lives. But they still read it. They read articles about topics that they have absolutely no interest in, simply because someone sends them the link. 

This morning in the metro I was standing next to a woman watching a movie on her phone. Then suddenly she stopped the movie. But instead of having some downtime, I realized that she just got an alert on her WeChat. So what she did was stop the movie, go to her WeChat, read the message, and then return to her movie. What a brain damage this kind of multitasking must cause over time, trying to do several things at the same time (watching a movie, having a couple of WeChat conversations at the same time, maybe get a phone call in the middle of it, etc)

The saddest thing I see nowadays is how people "go out" together. How many people now go to Starbucks with a friend, just for each of them playing with their phone? Sometimes they never talk to each other. Or maybe, if they are good friends, they show each other what's on their screen right now. As a friend of mine put it: "Friendship in the 21st century: Texting in close proximity to each other!"

Let's face it: Smart Phones have become our new idol. Maslow's pyramid of basic human needs now looks like this:

Now please get me right: I'm not saying that we shouldn't use Smartphones. We both have one, and we use them. They are convenient, they can be very helpful, and they have certainly been able to get us out of a lot of trouble in various situations. But what I am saying is:

We cannot allow Smartphones to replace face-to-face interaction

Cause let's be honest, that's what's happening. Even families spend less and less time together and more and more time on their phones instead. "Conversations" on Social Media give us a false sense of community. It makes us feel as if we have "many friends out there, who are really our friends, they're just not in the same room". It gives us a false sense of community. Because we talk, exchange opinions, listen to (I mean: "Read from") each other and make decisions together, that means we're really friends. And after all, we can always video call. For free! There's really not much of a difference whether we talk to each other face to face, or through a video call. Is there?

Most people say "no". I think there is a huge difference. Let's leave issues aside like dropped phone calls, bad internet connections, etc. It's just not the same. Where's the look in the eye that sometimes communicates so much more than a 5min conversation? Where's the handshake or the hug that makes things so much more "real" for a lot of us (not everybody though). Where's the experience of simply laughing together instead of just hearing the other person laugh through a speaker? Where's the shared meal that bonds so many people together in ways that a conversation never can?

Throughout the years of being married and having kids, I cannot overstate the importance of having a meal together. It makes all the difference. You think you're just eating together. But it's so much more than that. We make it a point now that we have breakfast together every day. And if I have a night meeting, then I have dinner with my family first. I come back home from the office, we eat dinner together, and then I leave again. Has made a huge difference for the family. Eating together really binds us together!

So yes, phones and mobile divises have crept between people. Relationships with family and friends often suffer under the time we spend on the phone. 


But there's another aspect that we often underestimate. And that is downtime! Now for me, as a Christian, I would call it quality time with God. If you would not call yourself a Christian, then you might think this part is not for you. Well, I think it is. Because we all need downtime. We all need rest. We all need time to "switch off". The constant use of mobile phones takes that time away. 

Let me come back to the lady I saw this morning in the metro. If I was her, I'd be exhausted before I ever reach my work. Watching a movie and following WeChat conversations at the same time (probably not just one, but many, also replying at times) is very exhausting. Because your brain constantly has to jump from one place to the other. Most people call it multitasking. But guess what: That's a myth. We CANNOT multitask. It's impossible. We can only think about one thing at a time. Now granted, it is possible to switch quickly. You think about one thing now, then you choose to think about something else, then you choose to think about a third thing. And then you think again about the first thing. So yes, we can switch quickly. But that's not really multitasking. It's only "switching quickly".

Guess what happens to our brains when we try to multitask? When we try to switch what we're thinking about very quickly and very often? You guessed it: We get tired and exhausted. Human brains are not meant for multitasking, and we shouldn't even attempt to go there. We need to learn to do one thing at a time. Once that's finished, we do the next thing. Of course that doesn't work perfectly in this world (esp. if you have kids). But that's what we should aim for. Finish one thing, then do the next thing. A lot of brain research has been done on this topic in the last few years, and they all come to this very conclusion: We cannot multitask. Any attempt to do so only leaves us tired, exhausted and confused.

So what does that have to do with mobile devises? Everything again. Cause they pull us in all directions all the time. We're in a face to face conversation, we get a message from someone else, so we stop our conversation, check the message, reply to it, then return to our first conversation. That's an attempt to multitask. Maybe we are at work, then someone sends us a link. So we read the article. By the time we finished reading, we forgot what we just did at work. And it takes us 5min to refocus, just to be aware again "what I just did 5min ago". Maybe we were writing an email when another email comes in. So we choose to reply to the newest email, because it's urgent. And then we completely forget about the first email. 1h later we rewrite our reply to the first email, because we forgot that it was already half written.

Let's face it: We've become inefficient. We're so easily distracted all the time with all the things that are going on on our phones. Every message, every call, every alarm,... sets us on alert. We immediately need to check. "Maybe it's something important!" (Nevermmind that the last time something was really urgent and important and required immediate attention was 7 months ago. But you never know, maybe this is that kind of incident again!) And we get totally distracted ALL the time. By the end of the day, we spend 20% of our time doing our work, 20% of our time we spent on the phone. 30% we try to get back into the flow, where we left off before we got that message that distracted us from our work. And the other 30% we feel so exhausted and overwhelmed that we get nothing done. Our brains are so pulled in all directions that by early afternoon we are too exhausted to get any meaningful work done any longer. 

So, what should we do?

Let me be honest: I don't have the secret formula. And yes, I'm struggling. I fail! I have moments when I play with my phone rather than with my kids. And yes, I feel it's fun for the moment. I am tempted, I struggle, I fight, and I'm not where I want to be in this area. But here are a few things my family and I try to do, trying to resist the many effects that Mobile Devises have on us today.

  • Completely turn off your phone at times. It might sound too simple, yet most people don't do it. But it makes a huge difference. We try to turn off our phones at certain times, esp. at nights. I'm not the savior of the world, and the world will not go down just because someone can't reach me right now. If everybody in the family is home, we turn off our phones in the evening and don't turn them on again until morning. This way we make sure that advertisement messages and calls don't disturb our needed night rest.
  • Put your priorities in your schedule first. We defined goals that we want to achieve. For example we defined our dinner times as a priority, to eat together as a whole family. Ryoko and I want to have quality time together each day. And of course, our quiet time with God. These things go into our schedule first, and we try to schedule everything around these priorities. The urgent things (work, friends who ask for help, etc) get into our schedule AFTER these most important things (not the other way around). And we protect these most important priorities by making them a "mobile phone free time", as much as we can. (We wrote a lot more about this topic in our book)
  • Put your phone away, give full attention to people at certain times. We make it a point that we do not want to be on the phone at certain times. During meal times we try to put our phones somewhere else, not on the table. When we have serious conversations our phones are somewhere else. If we go out together, we try to not text. During family time we also try to not use WiFi, to not be distracted by incoming messages, emails, etc. All these things. This idea can of course apply to everyone. But in the season of life we are in, this becomes even more important. We know perfectly that our children know what is most important to us by the way we act. Not by what we say, but by what we do! For example, if we consistently tell our children: "Don't talk to me right now, I'm texting" then they will know that other people are more important than they are, no matter what we tell them with our words. But if instead we say: "I'm turning off my phone, because we're having dinner together right now" then they know that we value time with them more than time with people from church.
  • Keep business and private separate. Many people use the same mobile phone number for work as well as for private conversations. That can cause problems. For example, someone might not want to be available to friends throughout Saturday (reserved for family time), but is required to leave his company phone on, "just in case". This person might never hear from the company throughout the whole weekend, but might then get all kinds of distractions from friends that ruin his/her weekend. If that's you, then maybe consider keeping these two things separate. Have two numbers, one for work (a number you don't share with your friends) and one for friends (a number you'll never share with your boss). Or nowadays phones are smart enough to recognize the caller. You can choose to only allow calls from your boss, and nobody else, or vice versa. There are different ways of doing this. The point I'm trying to make: Keep work and private separate, so you can choose at any time whether you are available to one, the other, both, or none.
  • Turn off alerts. I hate my phone buzzing. Cause once I know there's a message, I can only think about that message, until I know what it is. Therefore I turn off many of my alerts. That gives me 30min, 1h or 2h of undistracted time at work. And then when I have a good break at work, then I pick up my phone and see if there are any messages that came in. And then I can reply to everything that has piled up over the last hour or so. I try to not allow my phone to dictate my schedule. Instead, I choose at what times I pick up my phone and reply to whatever has come in throughout the time I chose to not touch it. 
  • Turn off WiFi. Same reason as alerts. I don't need to read every WeChat message and every email instantaneously. I can read all those when I have a good opportunity for a break from my work.
  • Protect your down time. Whatever you do for fun, protect it. Once you get a call or a message with "something important" you won't be able to relax any longer. If you like going to the gym, then put your phone on airplane mode during those 1 or 2 hours you spend there. If you go for the movies, then turn it off. If you're going out with your loved one, then agree with each other to not be available to others during the time you spend together. If you simply want to take a 30min nap, then make sure you put your phone in a different room, so you don't hear if someone is trying to reach you. We all need time to relax, to recharge, to not think about work. It doesn't have to be long, I'm not saying that you should never be reachable outside of office hours. But maybe make it a habit to say: "These 2h every week I'll not be reachable to anyone!"
  • You don't have to join every group chat, it's OK to leave conversations. Nothing frustrates me more than group chats with 50 people who talk about everything that I'm not interested in. It becomes especially annoying when 2 or 3 people start having a private side conversation in a mass group chat that has nothing to do with the initial topic of the chat. I'm usually the first one to leave these kinds of conversations. I hate them. Either I'm all in a conversation, or I'm all out. But I cannot just "hang out" in a chat, but not really be interested in it. If I'm all in, then I want to read every message and consider it (not just reading, but thinking about it, thinking about the implications, whether I should reply, etc.). If I'm not able to show that kind of interest in the conversation, then I just leave the chat. Cause if I'm not all in, then the constant buzzing and alerts will just annoy me A LOT very quickly.
  • You don't have to accept every Friend Invitation! If you're like me, you'll get a lot of friend invitations on Facebook, WeChat, etc. You don't have to say "yes" to every single person who sends you a friend request. You can ignore their request, or politely explain to them why you choose not to accept it. If you feel that being "friends" with the person on social media is not beneficial for you, then just don't do it! Don't feel bad about it. Always remember, a friendship requires both sides, it's a choice from both sides. That goes for "real friendship" as well as social media friendships.
  • You don't have to follow everyone! Same as above. I have friends on WeChat that I want to be able to communicate with. So I am "friends" with them. But some of the things they are posting are just ... not what I am looking for. So for some of my WeChat friends I chose to block their posts. I want to be able to talk with them. But I don't want to be distracted by their posts. 
  • Stop scaring people with your camera. Yes, cameras in phones are awesome. When I was a kid, we had a very limited quota of pictures we were allowed to take with our family camera. Too expensive to take a lot of pictures. Now we all take dozens of pictures a day. Quite nice. However, be careful to not keep people on their edge all the time. I have the three cutest kids in the world (There's absolutely no doubt about that in my highly subjective standard. However, I do hope other parents disagree with me!). And I hate when people take pictures of them without asking. It keeps me on my heels all the time when I'm outside with them. But what frustrates me even more is when friends take pictures of me unannounced. If I find out that a person took a picture of me in a social setting without asking, I start feeling watched and observed. And from that moment onwards I have my guards up and behave differently. Guys, please be careful how you use your camera. Tell people in advance that you are about to take a picture. If you can't, then tell them afterwards, show them the picture you took and offer them to delete it if they don't like it, etc. Be respectful. Many people see pictures of themselves on social media they don't like. And I certainly don't want to be the cause of such frustration to other people. Don't allow pictures you take to isolate you from your friends.
  • Limit your apps. There are around 3981 free apps that I am interested in and that I would like to install. Being a computer geek, that sounds like heaven. And it certainly is very exciting. But it would also mean that I would lose important time with God and my family. So I decided to limit my apps and only install apps that are really useful and important to me. If it's just "something nice to have" then I choose not to install it. Because the prize I pay in terms of time down the road is simply too high.

These are some of the principles that my family and I are trying to follow. Mobile Phones can be great. But we have to use them very wisely. Because if we don't, then they can really start to control our lives. They can become our God. Instead of our phones following us, we start following our phones. (Sometimes quite literally: Have you ever "followed" your phone to find a free WiFi network?) We have to use them wisely!

If you have any further ideas on "how to limit the influence of your phone to your life" then please feel free to let me know. Send me an email or write in the comments section below. I'd love to hear how you deal with this challenge. 

Thank you. 

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