When the realisation hits me, I’m filled with dread. My fingers grasp at empty space. I’m not sure I’m going be OK. How will I get through this? I remind myself to be calm as my brain races through emergency contingencies. Breathe. Just breathe.
I’m halfway to Footscray. My phone is not. I left it at home in the charger. There’s nothing worse than a phone with no battery, I’d thought. Except it turns out there is something worse.
Suppose I get lost? How will I find my way through foreign streets without the cool, automated voice telling me to ‘take the second exit’? Perhaps I should double-check the address on Facebook just to be sure. Except that I can’t. I’ll just call ahead and explain I don’t have my phone. Wait: no! This is the worst! If I’m running late, how will I let them know? If I get there early, how on earth will I pass the time?
At what point did mobile phones become so indispensable to us? I’m sure there was a time when I could travel, do business, entertain myself and be social without needing to fondle and jab at a small screen. Phones are our everything. We are becoming wired and tired. ‘Nomophobia’ is the term used colloquially to describe the fear of being without one’s mobile phone. But I don’t have that. Do I?
I’m very careful about how much time my children spend watching TV or on phones. Like a dutiful mummy, I conscientiously limit my children’s screen time. I’m sure it’s addictive and not good for their brains. But is it any wonder my kids want to play with devices when they see how their mother is mesmerised by her own pocket glow-toy?
Phones offer easy escapism. So what if you’re surrounded by piles of washing that need folding and dishes that need washing? Just flip onto Instagram or Pinterest and look at dozens of immaculate homes. I might not be able to solve the puzzle of Who Put Blu-Tack On The TV Screen, but I sure as gum can play SQUIZ across the triple-word-score on Words With Friends. I’ve even seen ads for games that simulate tidying a house. Think of it: all of the satisfaction, none of the schlep. I’m still marvelling that these apps not only exist but are popular enough to have ads.
Emails can be a problem for me. A typically insecure writer, I get a little edgy on deadline day. Have they read it yet? Is it OK? What if they hate it? I carry my phone everywhere, like a colicky baby, and check it fretfully every time it makes a noise. I know it’s silly. In reality, my writing work occupies only a small corner of my life, but in this corner I feel important. For once, I’m in demand for skills beyond my admirable ability to buckle toddlers into car-seats and scrub permanent marker from the living room wall.
Something pings. I jump and scrabble for my phone. As I frown at the message in consternation, I hear Christopher cackling from across the room. It turns out he’s taken a break from his online Greek lesson to access my secondary (spam) account, change the name settings to ‘Your Editor’ and send an email with the subject line ‘i hated it’. The ‘schedule send’ feature ensures that variations of this missive appear in my inbox throughout the day. I can’t believe I’m getting trolled by an 11-year-old.
Lately, I’ve been wondering: what effect does my phone use have on my relationships and spiritual life? How can I be fully authentic in my encounters with those I love if one eye is always checking how many people ‘liked’ my meme about Vladimir Putin? How can I have a fruitful prayer life if I spend all moments of stillness basking in my phone’s bluish glow?
We get into trouble when we give more attention to our phones than to people who are actually in the room with us. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of telling a sparkling anecdote only to discover your audience has been sidetracked by a text or notification (there’s a word for this, by the way: ‘Phubbing’ as in ‘Phone Snubbing’).
Pope Francis has urged families to put their phones down and start talking to each other. In his message for World Day of Communications 2019, the Holy Father warned of the dangers of becoming enmeshed in an online world to the exclusion of real relationships and becoming ‘social hermits’: ‘This dramatic situation reveals a serious rupture in the relational fabric of society, one we cannot ignore.’
But the Pope is not anti-technology. Pope Francis has his own Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and has even launched his own app, ‘Click to Pray’. In his message ‘Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter’, the Holy Father has described text messages and social media as a ‘gift from God’. ‘It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.’
There are many ways I can use my phone to help enrich my relationships with God and others. I am certain my children would not be as close to my brother who lives overseas if it wasn’t for their weekly Skype chat. My phone is loaded with Catholic podcasts and I can always turn to Catholic Facebook groups when I need prayers or advice. There are apps to pray the Rosary, to learn novenas, to access daily readings. There are iMissal apps, iBreviary apps, and apps that contain the full Catholic Bible. Personally, I’m addicted to the ‘Mass times’ feature of the Melbourne Catholic app when I need to sort complicated weekend logistics.
I’m not going to get rid of my phone, but I need to find some strategies to stop myself from swiping mindlessly at it. Some people make their phone’s screen black-and-white, subconsciously less appealing. Some get rid of their social media apps, or else bury them within many folders, to stop that automatic checking habit. Some make a point of going out for walks without their phones. I already have a ‘no devices in bedrooms’ rule for my children—perhaps I need to be stricter on that rule for myself. In fact, some families establish a little house for all of their devices. This is where the phone lives when you’re at home…now go talk to somebody!
This idea captures my imagination. Think of it—with phones locked away, home could be a perfect retreat, a place to unplug. But I trip up on my own perfectionism. Logically, I know that a cardboard box with some holes for charger cords would do the trick. But how about an attractive basket? Or something wooden? Or fabric? Perhaps I’ll just have a look at my phone for some Pinspiration?
I forget what I was supposed to be looking up, but I can tell you what These Fifteen Child Stars Look Like NOW (Number Five Really Shocked Me!) and I’m still trying to work out how to Reduce Belly Fat With This One Weird Trick. Meanwhile, my three-year-old twins have taken advantage of my distracted state to raid the fridge and are currently painting each other with biodynamic yoghurt.
I am a work in progress. For now, I’ll turn off all app notifications so that my phone only pings for text messages and voice calls. I’m even (and this might kill me) going to turn off my email notifications (‘From: Your Editor. Subject: your fired’). I’m going to do it right now.
Just as soon as I look up how to get yoghurt stains out of corduroy rompers.
Kate Moriarty is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. You can follow her adventures at laptopontheironingboard.wordpress.com.
This article was originally published in the August 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.