Image by Garry Knight.
Article originally published in The Catholic Weekly under a different headline.
Like most people I know I use my mobile phone a lot, less for making calls and more to see the time, check for email messages, or look up my favourite websites. I was surprised though to read that according to a recent US study people are checking their phones around 150 times a day.
That probably wouldn’t surprise Missionary of God’s Love priest Fr Dave Callaghan, whose work with young people has given him a front row seat to internet and mobile device addiction. When he spoke at the Catholic Digital Media Conference in Sydney last month he recounted noticing young people needing to touch their phones every 30 seconds or so.
I was only half listening because I was scrabbling around in my bag for my phone so I could record his comments.
It is a serious problem though, and as Fr Callaghan went on to point out, it’s not really about the pervasiveness of technology. It’s about the compulsive need so many of us have to distract ourselves from reality too much of the time, or to habitually waste too much time in the name of entertainment.
A paediatrician, Dr Jane Scott, has warned parents in a Washington Post article entitled Parents, Put Down the Cellphones that when they are absorbed in their mobile devices throughout the day parents communicate to their children that they are less important than whatever is on those devices.
“Most people just don’t realize how much time they’re spending online; what feels like a few minutes is often a half hour or more,” she wrote.
“When we are with our children, we need to be with our children — not with them except for the part of us that’s reading e-mails, tweeting and checking Facebook.”
She recounted the results of a study in March by researchers from the Boston Medical Center who observed caregivers (presumably mostly parents) and children at fast-food restaurants.
“Out of 55 caregivers, 40 used their mobile devices, and their absorption was such that their primary engagement was with the device, rather than the child,” Dr Scott wrote. In many cases, the caregivers expressed irritation when the children tried to get their attention. In one case a woman pushed a small boy away when he took her face in his hands in an attempt to get her to look up from her tablet.
But back to Fr Callaghan, who belongs to a religious congregation that uses digital media to great effect in its work of evangelisation. Through their online presence the MGLs seek to encourage friendships with people who are searching for meaning.
“Media is at the heart of Christianity because the word became flesh,” Fr Callaghan said. “God’s medium of communication is humanity.”
Advances in communication technology bring both tremendous opportunities and a problem when it’s often used to avoid the ugly parts of humanity, such as boredom, loneliness, or suffering of any kind.
“But these ugly parts of humanity are actually essential for an encounter with God,” says Fr Callaghan. “Christ, who was divine, chose to be hungry, vulnerable, and weak in his humanity, and it is in our suffering and weakness where we encounter God.”
This is as pertinent to parents as it is to missionaries. When I think about the times I use my phone, I’m often not looking for information or responding to someone who has contacted me. It’s more often because I’m bored waiting in the school car line, or I want an excuse not to push my sons on the swing at the park anymore. Whom am I choosing not to communicate with, and why?
I think it’s worth keeping my phone a little less close to hand, to give me more time to think before I grab it and stare into that little screen again.
What do you think? Have you ever felt that the use of phones or other devices were interfering with your parent-child relationships (with adults as guilty as the children)? If so, what solutions have you found?