When we took our eldest son to college this weekend, I noticed something new in the heart of campus, painted on the sidewalk at each roadway intersection:
In other words, kids, pay attention to the here and now. (And don’t get run over.)
Students entranced by their devices apparently have had some close calls, necessitating the stenciled letters on the sidewalks. From my experience living and driving in another college town, I can say that all universities should consider adding these sidewalk warnings. Like, yesterday.
But these words serve as an important reminder for us, too, not just for our kids.
Smartphones and other portable electronic devices have become ubiquitous. They give us needed information at the touch of a fingertip to a screen. But if we lose or leave them behind, we feel like we’re missing a part of us.
They also allow us to be miles away mentally while we are walking into a street, driving a car, sharing a meal, and spending (face to face) time with people.
We let a ring or a buzz or a screen prioritize who and what gets our attention.
This weekend, on our way to and from the college move-in, we had a layover at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. On almost every table in the terminal sat an iPad, where travelers could order food, browse the news, play games, and check their flight status. When we first arrived in the terminal, the iPad perk seemed so upscale, so 21st century, so nice.
And if I had been traveling alone, it might have been.
This novel approach to ordering, though, resulted in very little interaction with the server who, aside from greeting us, skipped the chit-chat and merely brought us our food and refilled our water glasses. Even more disappointing, it resulted in very little interaction between us. The iPad had gotten in the way.
Shouldn’t mealtimes ideally provide us not only food for our bodies, but also food for our souls, through conversation, laughter, and shared experience? I found no opportunity for soul feeding there, in the glitzy Terminal G.
Maybe the words from the sidewalk need to be taped to the restaurant table, or the kitchen table, as a reminder. When a phone rings during dinner or beeps at the arrival of a text, what if we ignore it, and continue the conversation we’re having with the person facing us, instead of heeding the intrusion?
Maybe the words from the sidewalk need to go on the car dashboard, so that when I notice my phone buzzing, I’m not tempted to glance over at it while driving down the road or cut off the conversation with my passengers to answer it when it rings.
Maybe the words from the sidewalk can help us find freedom from the addiction to our devices.
My son the college student spent his summer working at a scout centre in Europe, leading hiking and climbing trips in the Alps. It was a dream come true, the opportunity of a lifetime, and he formed quick, close connections with the other young adults who came from around the world to volunteer there too.
He attributed much of that connection to the lack of technology in their midst.
His phone only worked on Wi-Fi when he was at the centre, and even then internet reception was extremely spotty. On the trail or in the overnight huts, the guides and hikers had time and space to relate to each other as people from different nations and backgrounds, with different personalities, interests and skills. Smartphones were used as cameras to capture memories of mountain peaks and glacial lakes, not to text people a world away.
They found people interesting, not electronics.
They were living in the moment. Living a dream.
I hope my son finds those connections, those heads-up, phones-down moments, on his campus, too, and not just on the sidewalk. I hope he uses that technology to stay in touch with us and his friends in the rest of the world, but not if it means ignoring someone sitting right next to him. With the intention of a few, the dining hall, the student lounge, the residence hall and the sports arena all could become heads-up, phones-down spaces too.
Can we adults remember to find heads-up, phones-down moments in our lives as well?
What makes it difficult for you to step away from your smartphone and other devices? Could you give them up for a weekend, a day, or even an hour? How would you spend that new-found time? How would it benefit your life?
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