By David Treatman
If you’re reading this on your smartphone, you are breaking the eighth commandment.
Perhaps right now you are reading this as you ride the subway; maybe you are at the dinner table; or quite possibly you are at a party or a get-together. By choosing to give your phone some or all of your attention, you are stealing from those around you. I don’t simply mean that phones steal from us by wasting our time going down the rabbit hole of social media. I mean that they cause us to rob each other of our real presence and of our attention. The amount of conversations that I have been in with my peers, in which they are texting or scrolling through social media as I am talking to them, is uncanny. When they eventually look up, they expect me to repeat what I was just telling them, stretching conversations out indefinitely to make space for simultaneous others. The lack of reciprocity and attention that are products of dividing our consciousness between real and on-line existences detracts from authentic shared moments.
Perhaps the most egregious encroachment is that smartphones have imprinted social media patterns into our minds. Smartphones are training us to go through our finite lives for the entertainment of everyone around us – cheapening our own experience. When the food arrives, when your friend sneezes, when a stranger is drunk, when your baby takes their first step – our immediate reaction is to reach for our phones and post the moment online, placing a screen between ourselves and our lives. This pattern of behavior has been shown to hurt us physically, and stifle us emotionally. Studies have linked increased screen time with rises in depression, anxiety, insomnia and suicide. Smartphones, by enforcing continual connection to the worlds of social networks, violates the sanctity of human interaction and connection.
So what can we do about it? What should we do about it? I propose an approach inspired by traditional Jewish values. I do not come from a particularly religious home, however, at the start of this year, I decided to begin observing Shabbat. The major component of this involved turning off my iPhone on Friday afternoon, and keeping it off until sundown on Saturday. This initially proved to be very problematic, as members of clubs I participate in found it shocking that I could not be reached via GroupMe and friends were insulted that I was not immediately available to them around the clock. But the clarity and peace that I found by allowing myself to be alone was worth it. And I quickly realized that while a fraction of what I was missing was convenience for planning and coordinating with people, the vast majority of what I was giving up was access to avenues of lashon hara and exposure to my peer’s anxieties. For the most part, my peers don’t know how to be alone without a bombardment of distraction. I can see how panicky they get if they are not constantly connected to what is happening online. Daydreaming has been replaced by zombie like scrolling. People don’t appreciate their quiet thoughts or utilize their eyes when walking past gorgeous trees turning in the fall, or majestic skyscrapers as they puncture the clouds. A natural human fear of loneliness has morphed into a fully blown inability to be undistracted.
The wonderful separation between “work” and “life” I found through unplugging on Shabbat inspired me to enforce that division during the rest of the week as well. Giving up a smartphone means that I will be left out of countless conversations, moments, photos, and laughs from all over the world. But it is worth it to be more present in my life and not distracted from what is in front of me.
I want to stop living with a foot in two parallel universes. The internet and social media are not a replacement for reality, and I refuse to be condemned to a false existence. I don’t want to live for the pictures, I want to live for me and for the engaged people around me. This Hanukah I’m getting a flip phone and some socks. I hope that you will too. Choose life, not distraction. In the famous words of Leo Bloom, “Stop the world, I wanna get on!”