I have to admit, I’m pretty tired of the endless articles and internet memes that strive to convince us that we’re ruining our relationships with smartphones. Yes, it can sometimes be rude to spend your time glued to your phone while surrounded by meatspace folks actively trying to engage you, but to characterize this as a universal crime assumes that our relationships with the people in our immediate vicinity are inherently more important than our relationships with those who are not. This is simply not true.
Here are a few (but not all) of the reasons why you might find me (or anyone) engaging with my smartphone rather than my immediate surroundings:
- I am at a place/time in my life where the vast majority of my closest friends—the people who have known me the longest, understand me the best, and vice-versa—do not live where I live. I’ve met some awesome people locally—most notably my incredible students—but since I grew up, went to school, and lived more than half of my adult life elsewhere, those long-time friends are simply not here. Some of my dearest long-time friends are even people I’ve never lived near, and have always interacted with mostly online. My local relationships are important, but not more important than those that came before, and I’m honestly grateful for the technology and online social spaces that make keeping up with my older, distant friends an actually doable thing. Thanks to the internet and my smartphone, my friendships don’t have to be defined by proximity.
- Speaking of my “awesome students,” I’ll admit right now that when they seek my attention, they’re pretty much always going to get it. My work, and the young people it serves, are incredibly important to me, and I pride myself on being available to my students anytime they need me. So unless you are someone who (for instance) married or gave birth to me, you can count on me taking that text/email/call from a student no matter what else is going on. Sorry, not sorry.
- I may not be able to speak for all introverts here, but for me as an introvert, smartphones have vastly improved my quality of life. I love people, I really do. But being an introvert means that I become easily overtaxed by long or intense periods of human interaction, and I need large chunks of time by myself to recharge. Social media and smartphones have made this reality so much easier to deal with by giving me the best of both worlds.
Social media allows me to keep in touch with various communities and people I care about in an energy-preserving way, even during “alone” periods. Even when I’m taking precious time by myself, I can quietly stay up-to-date on people’s lives by reading my Facebook feed (I keep everyone I follow on custom lists that allow me to see everything they post, not just what Facebook thinks I want to see), and keep up with communities important to my social life and/or work. In these moments, I also appreciate the small interactions that remind me that my friends are out there. A simple “like” on Facebook or Instagram can serve as a much-needed, low-pressure touchstone during a busy day.
Additionally, my smartphone allows me to grab “alone” moments even in public, should I begin to feel overwhelmed by the in-person onslaught. By allowing myself some virtual distance to recharge, I can then return to my surroundings immediately, rather than having to simply go home.
- Honestly… sometimes my surroundings simply aren’t that worthwhile. I’m not going to apologize for reading books, articles, or friends’ posts on my phone in the waiting room at the RMV or the doctor’s office. I’m not missing out on the glory of nature here, and no lost opportunity for scintillating conversation can compare to the relief of avoiding the regrettable. I will be forever grateful to my phone, for instance, for sparing me from any interaction with the guy spewing far-right conspiracy theories in the waiting room at the car dealership. Humanity, you can be beautiful, but sometimes you’re just not for me. There are times when I’m pretty comfortable with my decision to disengage. Thankfully, my phone gives me a safe way to do that.
I’m not pretending that it’s always acceptable to be looking at my phone in the company of other people, and most of the time, I don’t want to. If you’re taking the time to engage me, I’m with you, really. I’ll even apologize before taking that text from my student (or my husband, or my parents), and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. But that’s because you’re important on your own merit—not just by your proximity. And that’s the way it should be.