I sat at 3 year old Isaiah’s tiny craft table last week to join a session of pressing seashells into homemade play dough. It was just the two of us. His little brother was asleep, his parents were at work, and we had about a half hour before he would be tucked in.
I had a busy day and my phone was still pinging with texts from clients, friends and colleagues tying up loose ends from earlier conversations. Isaiah patiently pointed out “You got a text,” with each ding. Eventually he reached for the green play dough and casually said, “You should turn your phone off.” No animosity, no frustration. Just a simple statement of fact.
Maybe he’d had enough of the noise. Maybe he sensed my distraction or my tension. I wanted to spend time with him – I love this kid – and I know how important it is for children and adults to share meaningful, focused interaction with each other. Whatever the case, he understood something I forgot. If all these texts were a problem, I could just turn off the phone.
I pursed my lips, shook my head and said, “You’re right.” He said, “I’ll turn it off,” and reached for the phone.
“Did I do it?” he asked as the screen went dark. “Well, you made the screen blank but to really turn it off, you have to hold this button down, then swipe your finger here.” I showed him. He did it and felt proud of himself for pushing the right buttons. I felt a strange mix of panic (“What if somebody needs me?”) and calm (“What a relief. I’m free to hold my full attention on this moment with Isaiah.”)
Sherry Turkle is a communication scholar who studies how devices redefine human connection and communication. Here’s Turkle explaining her research in an interview on PBS Newshour
“… all the research shows that the presence of that phone will do two things to the conversation. It will make the conversation go to trivial matters, and it will decrease the amount of empathy that the two people in the conversation feel toward each other. That phone is a signal that either of us can put our attention elsewhere.
Even a silent phone disconnects us.
And so it’s that feeling that we all are always potentially elsewhere that is cutting us off. And we’re finding ways around conversation, the kind of conversation that’s open-ended, where you give time for another person to sort of take a tangent and not go to a phone if there’s a little bit of a lapse.
And those are the kinds of conversations where empathy is born, where intimacy is born. And those are the conversations we’re not having with each other and with our kids.”
After reading Sherry Turkle’s book, I made a habit of putting my phone out of sight in conversations. Her research shows that the mere visual presence of a phone affects us, even if it is silent during the whole conversation. Sometimes I would tell people about the research, sometimes I just slipped the phone into my bag.
Somewhere between reading that book and sitting down to play dough, I let the habit get away from me. I’m glad a 3-year old reminded me to try again.
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