Are Cell Phones Stopping Us from Reaching Out?

Filed in Who Supports Your Writing Dreams? by on October 28, 2014 • views: 1932

Cellphones DistractionWe can communicate with one another in more ways than ever before.

But strangely enough, that’s not what seems to be happening.

Recent research suggests our obsession with technology is making us more isolated.

Despite the fact that we’re more connected, we’re also “more lonely and distant from one another,” according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology social psychologist Sherry Turkle, PhD. This is not only changing the way we interact online, but it’s straining our personal relationships.

I had the great pleasure of taking my parents to see the Oak Ridge Boys in concert a few weeks ago.

I love concerts, anyway, and sharing the experience with loved ones is about as good as it gets.

Apparently other people don’t feel the same way.

For some, it seems taking the folks to a concert is a rather boring chore, and the time is better spent on the cell phone than enjoying the experience.

Am I missing something here?

Seeing Life as a Chore

We had just sat down in the beautiful theater where the performance was to take place when a group of three came and sat down in front of us. It was an older lady—probably in her eighties—and a man and a woman.

As they interacted, we got the idea that the man was the lady’s son, and the woman his wife. They positioned Mom in between them. She was dressed up in a dark maroon jacket and slacks, necklace, earrings, the whole shebang. She looked dynamite. She had her hair all curled and sprayed and a million dollar smile on her face. She was one of those older ladies that just makes you feel great when you see her.

The son was in jeans and a polo shirt. He sat way back in his seat with his legs stretched out like he was about to watch a football game, except that his expression was one of extreme boredom already, and the concert hadn’t even started. If it hadn’t been for his nearly bald head, I could have easily mistaken him for an apathetic teenager.

His wife looked like a well-put-together businesswoman, with a smart blonde bob and a sharp skirt and jacket. She looked as if she had come straight from the office. Her purse was nearly as big as a diaper bag and she never did finish rifling through it until the concert was over.

Both of the younger people (I say “younger” in relation to the mom—they were in their forties) drew out their cell phones immediately upon sitting and started scrolling.

Mom was left alone between them.

Cell Phones Take Us Away from the Moment

There’s something about music that was popular in your hey day that creates a joy unlike any other. People hear songs they grew up with and it’s like they’ve gone through a wormhole to another time.

My folks love the Oak Ridge Boys. I grew up listening to them too, by default. We used to play them while taking long car trips from Colorado to New York to see my grandmother. Those songs kept us awake during the long hours on the highway, as we often couldn’t afford to stop and get a hotel room. We sometimes made the 2,500-plus mile trip in 48 hours, singing “Elvira” at the top of our lungs.

The minute the music started we were all transported. The little lady in front of us seemed to feel the same, her head be-bopping back and forth while she did her best to clap along. Her fingers were misshapen from a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis, but she managed to bring them together in a soundless gesture of rhythm anyway.

Meanwhile, her son and daughter-in-law busied themselves on their cell phones. Scrolling. Typing. Reading. Staring. And above all, absent.

“We are tempted to give precedence to people we are not with over people we are with,” says Turkle. “We text during dinner with our families. We text as we drive. We text when we are with our children in the playground. Children say they try to make eye contact with their parents and are frustrated because their parents are looking down at their smart phones when they come out of school or after school activities.”

During our concert, it wasn’t the parents who were distracted. It was the children. The grown children.

The glaring light of their phones was often right in my line of site—a too-frequent occurrence in performances and movies these days that drives me nuts. I came close to saying something to the office lady a time or two, but then she would stuff the machine into her purse. I’d have maybe ten minutes to get back into the swing of the show before she would pull it out again.

Cell Phones Make Us Less Sociable

In 2012, scientists released results of a study that showed cell phones make us less “socially minded.” When using them, we have a lower desire to connect with others or to be empathetic towards them.

We were watching a prime example of this behavior. My parents and I often exchanged glances, wondering how these two could take such a special a woman—their mother, no less—to a great concert and then sit there so obviously bored and distracted. It was not only extremely rude, to their mother and to everyone else around them, it was tragic.

That woman, happy and cheerful as she was, obviously didn’t have a lot of years left on this Earth. The Oak Ridge Boys may end up being the last live group she ever enjoys in the company of her son. Yet when he wasn’t on his cell phone, he was up and out of the concert hall, off to the restroom or some other destination. At the end of the night, he had shared next to no real time with his mother. He might as well have sent her to the concert with a paid chaperone.

It would have taken very little for him to have made the experience one they both would have enjoyed. A pocketed cell phone. A bit of attention on the show. A sharing of his mother’s joy.

Fortunately, my parents and I were able to ignore his bad behavior most of the time and still thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

But then something happened that really got my attention.

Too Busy to Reach Out a Hand

The Oak Ridge boys have a song called “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend.” It’s one of their greatest hits. Not only is the tune uplifting, but the lyrics have a great message.

They played it toward the end of their concert. Here’s a snippet of the words:

Can’t you feel it in your bones?
The change is coming on
From every walk of life
People seeing the light
Can’t you feel it in your heart, now?
A new thing is taking shape
Reach out and touch a hand
Make a friend if you can

In the middle of the song, when the instrumental takes over, the boys started shaking hands with one another. I was chuckling at first. I could just imagine them doing this at every concert over the span of their career. Here are these fellows who have been together for over forty years crossing the stage to shake hands with one another as if they had just met.

They kept doing it. “Reach out and take a hand, make a friend if you can.” The alto singer shook hands with the drummer. The bass singer shook hands with the bass guitar player. The tenor shook hands with the bass.

Then one of them switched it up. The steel guitar player couldn’t really get his hand off the keyboard for a full handshake, so he fist bumped the singer. The idea spread. Soon the whole stage was alive with fist bumps. Those that had already shaken each other’s hands had to go back and fist bump.

It was funny. These guys are well into their late sixties and early seventies, but they were fist bumping like a crowd of gangsta teens.

And it was contagious.

People started looking at one another. Shaking hands. Reaching across the aisles. Fist bumping. Strangers talked to one another like friends. Loved ones rekindled their attachments. Lovers kissed and hugged and held hands.

And then that little lady in front of us, smiling wide the whole time, held her fist out to her son.

It took him a few minutes. He had to look up from his cell phone. Then he finally realized what she wanted. He touched fists with her and went back to whatever it was he was reading.

She turned in her seat and held her fist out to the woman.

The blonde bumped back with about the same level of attention one might give a pesky fly.

The mom sat square again in her seat.

I’d had enough. I tapped her on the shoulder.

She turned around, and I gave her my fist.

Her face lit up like a summer morning. She bumped me back and laughed.

Then she grabbed my hand in her misshapen fingers and said, “I’ve just made a new friend!”

Her light and love spilled over me. I smiled back and said, “Me too!”

The other two ignored us completely.

When the concert was over, she was still smiling at me while her son and daughter-in-law led her away.

We’re Missing Out on Life

I’m sure neither of those two concert-goers will remember any of what they read on their cell phones.

But I’ll never forget the experience—not only for the fun I had with my folks, but for the new friend I made.

“While it’s nice to be in touch with your cousin in England over Facebook,” says Dr. Catriona Morrison, an experimental psychologist at the University of Leeds in England, “that can’t replace a more intimate face-to-face relationship… you need to balance this with relationships within the community you are actually living in.”

As I look back, I’m sad for that son and his wife. Though I doubt they’ll ever realize it, they missed out on something that could have really been great.

“It’s like looking back at the issue of children going to work at 12,” says Michelle Mitchell, charity director general of Age UK. “There’s something so fundamentally wrong with what’s happening.”

“Technology can make us forget important things we know about life,” Turkle says.

Reach out and touch a hand.

It’s such a simple message, but one I think needs to be repeated a lot more in today’s world.

Are you tired of trying to get your loved ones’ attention when they’re on their cell phones?

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Comments (8)

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  1. rusty duck says:

    When we were in Norway recently we were staying in a small hotel, guests eating at the same table and sitting around in the lounge. Everyone, without exception, sat in the lounge peering at a cell phone. It was eerily quiet, hardly any conversation. Really quite bizarre.

    • Colleen says:

      It is bizarre, but we see it everywhere. I wonder if it’s here to stay or if people will adjust and start conversing with each other again?

  2. Alonna Shaw says:

    Colleen, your story was so poignant it made me cry. I loved how you avoided confrontation with the son and daughter-in-law, but waited and interacted with the mom in such a beautiful and supportive action.
    (“Devices” drive me crazy, too.)

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Alonna. And it was hard avoiding a confrontation! (ha) I just hope when I’m that age I can be as graceful and positive as that little lady was. She was inspiring.

  3. Kate says:

    You had me spellbound as I read the post. Great job! I’m so glad you reached down and tapped the ladies shoulders and fist bumped her. That is something I would have done too. It is sad that the 40-somethings were unable to be really present at the concert, and enjoy the experience for what it was. I’m sure they had their reasons. Like you, I hope this does not become acceptable behavior. Articles like yours are raising awareness. Thanks.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks so much, Kate! I just couldn’t believe it as I watched it all unfold. The sad thing to me is once these experiences are gone, they’re gone for good, and we always remember experiences over screen time, you know? So appreciate you stopping by. :O)

  4. Chere Hagopian says:

    Wow, that makes me so sad for the older mom you met. How could her son and daughter-in-law be so rude? I’m from the same generation, and I can’t imagine doing that. I feel really blessed that my friends and family are people who pay attention to others. They don’t text and talk unless it’s urgent, and then not without saying, “Excuse me for a second, I have to answer this” or something. I don’t think I know anyone well who is such a Facebook addict that they would check it during a concert, for goodness sake! I hope that couple is unusual, but I do hear other people saying that their friends and family “multitask” when they hang out.

    • Colleen says:

      Sadly, I’m seeing it more and more. I go to a lot of evening events and there are always a few who just can’t seem to resist staring at a screen when they have a live show right in front of them, and friends/family around them. I’ve seen writers have to ask audience members to leave during readings because those members are texting. It’s so easy to get up and leave if you really need to attend to something else. I’m concerned that it’s becoming so common that it will eventually be an acceptable form of behavior—I hope not!