From Dr. Jane's Notebook

Can we talk? Turn off your cell phone!

I adore the safety of having a cell phone. I feel safer on the road, I like being able to “get in touch” to check in with family members, and I feel more secure having a phone with me. No doubt, most of our society is used to life with cell phones, so now not having a cell phone has become a serious handicap. However, along with its  benefits, cell phone usage has created a new set of problems.

·        Almost all phone calls are now person-to-person.  Before cell phones, the family telephone was a hub of activity. I knew when my kids were getting calls,  I knew who was calling, and what time they received calls. Everybody did. Telephone conversations were public events. Family members had to take turns using the phone, there were rules about the length of phone calls, and some times it was necessary to keep the line free for incoming calls. Some good lessons were learned as the result of sharing the family phone; we also knew more about each other’s friendships and relationships.

·        Long distance phone calls used to be family affairs. When families called long-distance, everybody talked to everybody else. This helped to bridge the distance between families living apart. Because all phone calls used to come in through a central house phone, it was harder to make a long-distance call without speaking to everyone. If someone called long-distance, almost everyone would get on the phone and say hello. But these days, it is easier for one relative to call one other relative and feel no obligation to speak with the rest of the family.  As a result, it’s easier to do less “reaching out to touch someone”.

·        It used to be harder to start affairs. The privacy dimension of cell phones makes it easier to start and carry out inappropriate relationships with others. In my practice, most extra-marital affairs are “busted” by the phone numbers listed on cell phone “call history” listings and cell phone bills. At its worst, telephone relationships can  turn into addictions, whereby otherwise rational individuals will begin holding their phones to their ears, talking and whispering sweet nothings for hours at a time. Not surprising, cell phone relationships and their addiction, like any other addiction, are very destructive to other primary relationships. 

·        Cell phones can make your kids feel left out. There is nothing more important to our children’s development than our conversations with them. Some of the best parent-child conversations take place while driving in the car, eating meals together,  and just sitting around with some time to catch up. However, too many parents miss these opportunities by talking on cell phones in the presence of their children. I’ve seen parents talk the entire time they are in their cars, and even talk through entire dinners at restaurants. The message to their child is “I’m invisible, I’m not important, I don’t count as a person worthy of conversation, or everyone else seems to come before me”. Eventually, children grow tired of competing with the telephone and either give up on their relationship or become angry with their parents.

Irving Goffman’s book, titled Asylums talks about invisible walls that people erect around themselves. This author wonders whether cell phones may be the latest culprit. Is it possible that cell phones build invisible walls between parents and children? When we talk on cell phones instead of interacting with others, are we unwittingly erecting relationship walls? Have cell phones become a way to avoid relationships in your family?

 Consider the example of how for safety’s sake, young children are required to sit in the back seats of cars.  As a passenger, this naturally limits their view and feeling of connectedness with the driver. Most of what they see is the back of their parent’s head. When parents talk to their children, kids feel a part of the journey.  However when the driver is busy chatting on the phone, all a child can do is listen or find ways to interrupt.

Decide whether this is a good time to take an objective look at your telephone habits. This can be a great topic for a family meeting. Parents and children can work together to set limits and agree on manners.

©Copyright, 2004, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.

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