I find myself wondering these days what my students did in 1990 to distract themselves. That’s when I started teaching communication classes to college students, and I don’t remember any of them having cellphones back then. Or laptops, iPads and iPods. Maybe they secretly played Bon Jovi or Prince in their Walkman, one earplug in and eyes intent on me as I lectured. Some of them doodled; that’s still popular today. Some would open the school newspaper on the desk and try to read an article on the sly. A few might have tried to fall asleep, until I saw them and rudely interrupted their naptime. What I don’t remember is a student intently staring at his lap, checking his Twitter feed, his Instagram likes or his Snapchat streaks. Some are pretty good at it, and I can tell they have worked hard to master their cloaked habit. Others are about as subtle as a Trump tweet, and they just lock and load on their lap-phones, sometimes even laughing softly to themselves at something they are reading. That’s when I remind my students that I was born at night, but not last night, and would they please put their phones away?
A few weeks ago I noticed a student intently staring at his watch. Then he started poking at the face of it with his forefinger. This went on for several minutes, with regular pauses. I assumed he was too tired to finish the text and needed breaks in between sentences. Bless his heart. Actually, when I first saw this, it didn’t dawn on me what the student was doing. I don’t have an Apple Watch or its clone, so my orientation is not to think “texting” when I think of my watch. When I realized what was going on, I politely asked him to crush his watch under the leg of his chair. Not really, but I did tell him to take it off and put it away. First time ever!
Look, this is not an old-man rant about modern technology. I am not yelling at anyone to get off my lawn. I am just as guilty as the next guy at allowing my smartphone to control my day, if I am not careful. Even my watch has gotten into the act. I have a Garmin watch that I bought because it has a GPS in it and is helpful for tracking my running. It also talks to my phone, and they have developed quite a close relationship. This summer a pastor in Berlin was introducing me as I sat on the second pew with Cindy, preparing to go up and preach. Suddenly, to my horror, my watch told my phone to start playing music. It didn’t matter that my phone was muted, apparently, because loud strains of “Winter Wonderland” by James Taylor began to compete with the pastor’s introduction of the idiot in the second pew. Cindy and I struggled to turn it off and I was finally forced to crush it under the leg of the pew. Not really, but I walked to the pulpit with a red face and apologized to the multinational congregation about my faux pas.
I don’t have all the answers to our addiction to distraction these days. The research is startling, and you may have read George Will’s column last Tuesday in this paper. He quoted extensively from Sen. Ben Sasse’s new book about the epidemic of loneliness as a health crisis in our nation. Will wrote, “In the last quarter of the 20th century, the average number of times Americans entertained at home declined almost 50 percent. Americans are hyperconnected but disconnected, with ‘fewer non-virtual friends than at any point in decades.’”
One answer may be to reconnect to a healthy community. Find a good church and don’t just sit in a pew; get involved in the community. You may also need to put away the phone and go retro.
Speaking of which, does anyone have a Walkman I could borrow? I think I can find my old cassette tapes in the attic.