Many years ago a presenter at a youth ministry workshop discussed the issue of excessive TV watching by youth. What has stayed with me all these years is his approach. He didn’t lament TV or the programing. Instead, he asked a great question, “If youth are spending all that time watching TV, what aren’t they doing?” Unstructured play topped his list of answers. He argued that watching all that TV prevented the youth from being outside which, in turn, meant that they didn’t have the opportunity to be creative in making up games nor playing team games without adult referees.
I’ve spent a few days last week at Walt Disney World and find myself asking that same question about cell phones. If teens and adults are spending so much time engaged with their phones, what aren’t they doing?
In my view, they’re not interacting with people. True, they may be interacting with people via the phone but that’s not at all the same as relating to a physical person currently with you. How many times do we see friends or family members walking or sitting next to each other, both on their phones, and acting as if no other person was with them? Yesterday, I watched two teenage boys – friends, I suspect – board a bus, pull out their phones, and not speak to one another. Even when they exited the bus both focused on their phones. Prior to smart phones that non-communication would have been limited to a situation where the boys were in the midst of a disagreement of some sort. Otherwise they would have, more likely, talked up a storm.
This lack of interacting extends beyond people to the environments we encounter. The Disney designers and engineers are noted for the extraordinary amount of detail put into the parks and individual rides. If one is attentive, all sorts of things can add to the experience. The Expedition Everest roller coaster ride in the Animal Kingdom Park is a good example. As you walk toward the ride everything within your vision helps to create the impression that you are in Nepal. Then the waiting line, through signs and displays, explains the story of the Forbidden Mountain and the Yeti that inhabits it. That background matters. Without it, the ride is just a roller coaster with the unusual twist of a section where the train of cars moves backwards through the dark. With the background story in your mind however, the images shown during the ride make sense. You are indeed, encountering the Yeti on the Forbidden Mountain.
I can’t help but think that, because of their smart phones, a large percentage of the riders experience Expedition Everest as just a roller coaster. As I waited in line I saw few people looking around and picking up the Yeti story. Most decided, I guess, that the line was just “gap time” – otherwise wasted time that could be put to better use.
And then there were those who interacted with their environment through their phone’s camera. I stood next to a woman who filmed a fireworks and light display with her camera. She wasn’t holding the phone and looking around it to enjoy the show. The recording process demanded her full attention and so she experienced a spectacular show via a tiny, two-dimensional screen. I understand wanting to capture, as Disney expresses it, memories. Looking at a photo or video later can call to mind the experience associated with it. But this woman never saw the real experience and so she captured exactly what she saw. There will be nothing bigger to bring to mind when she later watches what she filmed.
What are the consequences of all of this? A general statement isn’t possible since, in fairness, the answer depends in large part on what people are viewing on their phones. There are undoubtedly times – maybe many – when what’s on the phone does indeed outweigh what’s not. The two teens on the bus could well have been reading classical literature for their school summer reading program in which case they may have made excellent use of 20 minutes.
Perhaps we need to see this as a choice – an opportunity cost, as an economist would express it. I can engage my phone or engage people and the environment around me. Both aren’t possible. As Jesus expressed it, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). Of course Jesus said this in regards to money but the spirit seems to hold for phones as well. Are people I’m with interrupting my phone or is my phone interrupting my interactions with those people?
I own a Windows phone in part because it won’t do that many things. Is it a limitation? Yes. On this vacation, for example, having access to the app that provides ride wait times would have been helpful. But, I have enough self-awareness to know that a state-of-the-art phone would be a real problem for me.
May I encourage some self-reflection on this? When you spend time on your phone, what aren’t you doing?