There are times I feel like I’m the last remaining human who isn’t fully dependent on her cell phone. I notice this fact at the library, while out to dinner, at concerts, at church, in business meetings, just about everywhere. I am obstinately low-tech as much as I can be. I love my laptop, but what I really love about it is that I can’t work on it in the car, or at church, or at Grandma’s house. I work on it, then I leave it and all the drama that lives in it. I have a cell phone and I have been using it more recently, but I prefer my landline (the telephone guy who had to come repair it joked that they pulled him out of retirement for this job because nobody deals with landlines anymore).
Sometimes when I’m in a group of people and they all start looking at their phones, I feel an unexplainable annoyance that then borders on rage. Well, I THOUGHT it was unexplainable until I watched The Still Face Experiment video I’d seen many times before, but I imagined this mom holding a phone instead of just staring blankly.
Watching this video of the Still Face Experiment with a group of people the other day, I saw how moved they were. It’s hard to watch the pain that baby feels as her mom goes blank. While it may seem cruel to us, I think more of us need to consider when and how we’re causing that kind of pain to people we love.
In social situations I have become that raging baby. I mean, I’m NOT a baby so I don’t actually bang my head on the chair, but mentally I kind of am. I find myself wanting to say sarcastic things like, “Hey! I don’t know if you guys realize this, but I’m a human and I’m standing here. I know your phone is super interesting, but did you intend to tell me I’m unimportant or did it not occur to you that that’s how this reads?” But you know what’s easier to do than go into a Baby Rage? It’s easier to get out my phone and just do the same thing. Confession: I have pulled out my phone when the battery was totally dead and starred at it, just so I wouldn’t feel so lonely in those moments. And I have total sympathy for my kids’ desires to have a phone to be “just like everybody else” not because of peer pressure, but because they’re tired of being lonely in a group.
Is it okay for us to talk about what we are doing to our friends, our kids, our spouses when we live in a constant state of Still Face Experiment? When we are in the same vicinity as people we love and our expressions go dead and our heads slump down and we orient ourselves towards our screens instead of our people?
I know we need phones to do our jobs. I know we need them in case someone has to get ahold of us in an emergency. I know lots of you are reading this very post on your phone. I know we’re able to connect with friends in ways that ease our own loneliness. But I think sometimes we forget what it’s like to be the person on the other side of that Still Face, trying to figure out what we did wrong or what we should do better to be worthy of attention. Why are we so surprised when we’re engrossed in our screen and our kids start launching toy cars across the room? Maybe instead of yelling at them we need to start recognizing that THAT is the level they had to escalate to just to snap us out of our Still Face. Even a raging parent is better than a Still Face one.
I’m going to be real with you– an extended Still Face Experiment via cellphone was a cancer in my marriage. It started us down a path of disconnect and disorientation that has been hard to heal (it was obviously a symptom of other issues and not the total problem, but it exacerbated what was already there). When I look back at that season, my biggest regret is that I DIDN’T give vent to the rage I felt, sitting at a restaurant idly flipping through a menu while my husband was on his phone. Staring out the window while my husband was on his phone. Playing with my silverware while my husband was on his phone. Those are some of the most lonely memories of my life and if I could go back and redo them, I wish I would have gotten up and walked out of that restaurant. But it had become our normal and I think for so many couples where BOTH of them are equally phone dependent, you don’t even notice it happening. Because I was the baby strapped into the highchair of this Still Face marriage, I keenly felt that disconnect and it broke my heart. I wish I would have just said how rude that was, but I could look around the restaurant and see the same thing happening at table after table and felt like the real problem was me, because I wasn’t as phone engaged as everybody else.
We have had to work hard to take back our relationship from the forces pushing against it. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and happy that our new normal involves healthy boundaries around how we engage with tech when we’re together. No phones in the bedroom (I don’t know if you know this, but they actually still make alarm clocks that plug into the wall! GASP), phones on dates are for snapping selfies and babysitter reachability not checking on what the rest of the world is doing, if a text is necessary while we’re together we include the other person in the conversation (“I need to write them back quickly, if that’s okay.”) instead of just zoning into Phoneland. Phones don’t come to the dinner table and phones at basketball games or the park are for taking pictures.
I’m not telling you how to live your life. I’ve had my own shameful moments of forsaking my kids for the sake of some perceived crisis happening online that I felt I needed to handle. I work from home and I’m not always as protective as I should be about creating healthy boundaries around my work time and family time. I’m not throwing this piece out as a justification about how I’m doing this right and we all need to chuck our cellphones. I’m just wanting to validate the strong feelings that come from interacting with people who are physically present, but emotionally and mentally absent. It’s hard on friendships, a strain on our marriages, devastating to our kids. Let’s be sure we’re taking time to reengage with the people we love and creating memories for our kids where our Still Face isn’t the only face they see.