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O'Malley: Why you can't break up with your phone (even in the car)

Julia O'Malley

What was that mother doing at 8:15 on a Wednesday morning, in her car with a kid in the back, at a stop light? Updating her Facebook status. That's right. Typing with her thumbs, on her phone, while sitting in the driver's seat.

Judge her. Go for it. Use words like "self-control" and "personal responsibility." Or go all caps: I HOPE YOU GET ARRESTED! YOU COULD KILL SOMEONE. Point to your bumper sticker, the one that says, "Hang-up and drive." I'm sure that will help.

Here's the thing. She's probably not proud of the fact that she's messing with her phone, looking at Facebook, reading email, etc. But it happens. Only at stoplights, but still. Her life doesn't have a lot of quiet moments and it's become a ritual. Before she knows it, someone is honking at her because the light changed and she didn't notice because she was liking a picture of her college housemate's kid in a gorilla mask.

I'm sure you've never done anything like this. No, never. Not you.

She knows it's a slippery, dangerous slope from staring at Facebook at a red light, to staring at her phone as she starts driving again. She's seen the videos on the Internet, like the one where the texting driver crosses the center line and gets creamed by a semi. She's thought about her children using their phones in their cars. Terrifying. Why is it, then, that it's so difficult for her (and many of us) to quit doing it? The answer isn't simple or easy. Instead it has to do with the way technology has become essential to the way we live, love and work.

Back to that Wednesday morning. Maybe it was just her and her son that morning. Maybe he was having a rough day for the reasons toddlers have rough days. The cinnamon toast was not on the monkey plate and so he cried. He pulled off his shoes and socks and cried because he had bare feet. And, while sitting at the light, listening to the crying, she looked down at the inviting glow of her cell phone and typed a status update, something wry about kids and how much you love and hate them all at once.

And then she felt better.

By the time she got to preschool and looked at her phone again, she already had three comments. They made her laugh. Criticize if you will, but that kind of connection isn't trivial, it's powerful and hard to ignore. And therein lies both the irresistible magic and the inescapable curse that comes with smart phones.

People say that smart phones cause disconnection, but they're wrong. When you're talking to your people on your phone you are actually checking in, not checking out. We are more checked in than ever. There is science that says looking at a phone activates parts of the brain associated with feelings of love and compassion.

Think about the people in your contact list and all your Facebook friends. The phone is a little glowing portal into all that. Then add in work. Not only is the phone tied to all of your relationships, it's also loaded up with the demands and expectations of your job. No wonder so many of us can't avoid staring at them at red lights.

You can say all this is stupid. You can vow to resist using a smart phone, but really that's like standing in a monsoon and refusing a raincoat. It is only a matter of time until everyone has one. How do you use it less? I don't know the answer to that.

In the preschool parking lot, that mother decides she will not look at the phone anymore. She does the only thing she knows will keep her from looking. She puts it in the console. Then she drives to work.

Recently I saw a brilliant clip of the comedian Louis C.K. explaining to Conan O'Brien why he doesn't want his daughter to have a smart phone. He said kids need to learn how to sit and not do anything. He said phones distract us from larger sad truths about the human condition.

"Underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty, forever empty, you know what I'm talking about? That knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're alone," he told O'Brien.

Alone in your car and alone with your thoughts. That makes people uncomfortable, he said. And then they get on their phones.

"People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don't want to be alone for a minute," he said.

Phones do distract from the aloneness. But there is another truth, too. You can't get away from them. Not for long. To avoid the phone, a person has to have the kind of discipline it takes not to talk to people that you love and not to think about work when not working. You all know how hard that is.

And so maybe that mother does take a minute, with her phone out of sight, to enjoy the fact that no one is crying. But soon a familiar vibration sounds inside the console. Someone out there wants her. Preschool. Or work. Or a wrong number. Reflexively, she opens it up and reaches inside. 

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NOTE: An earlier version of this column stated that driver texting at stoplights is illegal. It is not, says the Anchorage Police Department.


Julia O'Malley
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