Cellphones Provide A Handy Distraction From Our Need To Be Distracted

I’ve read my fair share of articles on how humans are becoming dependent on technology and how Google is making us “stupid,” but my experience living without my cellphone for two days last week was not at all like the ordeal these articles describe. Instead of finding myself hopelessly dependent on technology (and therefore useless without my phone), I found myself able to survive quite sufficiently without my BlackBerry.I was able to navigate without Google maps, find friends without texting, and read news without an RSS reader. I’m no statistician, and I didn’t carry on this accidental experiment for longer than two days, but the experience has made me wonder if the vast majority of research, articles, and surveys have been too quick to judge the affect technology has on our daily lives.

Rather than a form of distraction itself, I realized my BlackBerry was merely being used as an excuse for my own need to be distracted.

Take an awkward college freshman as a simple example. For those who started college when cellphone use was first becoming popular, what did you do your first few days when you walked around campus not knowing many (or any) other students? Did you feel awkward walking alone while everyone else seemingly had two or more friends constantly at their side? During my recent trip to Boston to visit college alumni friends, I asked them how they felt the first few days at Conn College. Most admitted they had flipped through their (then not “smart”) phones while walking across campus in an attempt to look busy. Some even went so far as to feign phone conversations with a non-existent friend. All of this was done with the intent to look less alone, to appear less awkward, and, above all else, to not feel like a loser.

Thankfully, we’re not all college freshmen with low self-esteem. However, last week I noted a trend in the times I reached for my non-existent phone: it was always when I felt either bored or uncomfortable. My first urge in the morning as I woke up was to grasp for my phone. I fruitlessly fished through my bag while waiting at a crosswalk stop signal. I sought refuge from an uncomfortable, lagging conversation with a useless reach in my jacket pocket. I moved my fingers anxiously as though scrolling an invisible phone while waiting at train and T stations.

Why did I do these things? Because thumbing through my BlackBerry is something that keeps my hands busy and my gaze averted. To me, these situations were boring and/or uncomfortable. Even if there were no messages waiting, I could always kill some time reading a Twitter feed or playing Sudoku.

Of course, the argument could be made that my BlackBerry has made me more distracted and that these urges are related to a need for constant interaction and entertainment. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. When I articulated my experiences to friends up in Boston, they all (smart phone users or not) admitted to flipping though old text messages to make themselves feel less uncomfortable with their surroundings. On Facebook, the group “I Pretend to Text in Awkward Situations” has almost 3.7 million members. There must be something to this.

All of this discomfort makes me wonder what we did back before cellphones. Did our parents and our grandparents grasp for a book when they encountered awkward situations? Did they leave and powder their noses when conversation lagged on dates? Did they turn on Walkmen on the Subway to avoid conversation and use the song changer to avoid eye contact? Did they stare uncomfortably at their shoes or attempt to make conversation with strangers? What did we do to before cellphones to release this awkward tension? I think these questions are worth exploring in greater depth, maybe with a study, if one isn’t already in progress. Of course, this only applies to those not constantly checking their cellphones for timely, business-related reasons.

I also wonder what void cellphones might fill in the lives of us who feel the need to check our phones even when we’re not bored or uncomfortable. What about my desperate morning grasp for my phone? What about ghost vibrations, so common there is now an actual term for the phenomenon? Studies have not yet been able to link over-the-top cellphone habits with actual addiction, but people have shown similar patterns of behavior like building up tolerance, needing more and more for similar “high” effect, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Like drugs and addictions, I wonder if a desperate need to be constantly connected with others through a cellphone is a physical representation of internal problems like depression. In fact, some early studies suggested there might be a direct link between heavy cellphone use and depression. That is not at all surprising. What do cellphones do? They facilitate a need for distraction either by putting us in contact with others via text message, Tweet, phone call, or Facebook message, or by offering a convenient cover for our insecurities, awkward feelings, and loneliness. Maybe most importantly, they allow us to avoid being alone with ourselves, our thoughts.

These realizations from my two days cellphone-free make me want to get rid of my phone just to know what I might use to replace my discomfort (books? conversation?). Or would my discomfort begin to dissolve as I faced awkward situations every day, rather than hiding behind the handy distraction my BlackBerry provides for me?

By Claire S. Gould

Claire is a social justice communications nerd by day and a bookish feminist blogger by night. She runs the popular blog Bibliofeminista as well as Today in Women's History, a project celebrates a woman in history every day.

Outside of work, blogging, and volunteering, Claire enjoys consuming caffeine, making and appreciating art, watching classic films, and endlessly discussing progressive politics.

One reply on “Cellphones Provide A Handy Distraction From Our Need To Be Distracted”

Oldster here. My high school graduation present was an electric typewriter. My last “real” job was using an IBM computer with DOS.

What did we do? Our minds were quieter. We were bored more easily and more often. Kids went mad crazy on weekend afternoons. Except mothers–they had work, less available help, and let kids run free on the street, trusting that older ones would look after the little ones. At work we chatted more, walked around and visited other people. I am very curious about life in the workforce nowadays, imagining folks fixed on computer screens.

In public we couldn’t hide behind our gadgets and had to deal with awkward social situations, but didn’t question it, it’s just how it was. We did a lot of staring into space, at shoes. It was also harder to “people watch” without being “caught”, e.g., suddenly locking eyes with your subject, blushing, and trying to look away.

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