The Ghost of Christmas Past is a vindictive bastard.
As you undoubtedly know, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a story of redemption, in which miserly misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge learns to love life and his fellow human beings by supernatural means. Early in the story, The Ghost of Christmas Past forces a confused and frightened Scrooge to re-live key moments from his past.
Like getting dumped.
Belle, whom a regretful Scrooge later describes as “the love of my life,” drops the hammer as the modern-day Ebenezer, helpless, looks on:
“Another idol has displaced me,” she said, “and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”
“What idol has displaced you?” Scrooge said.
“A golden one.”
She walks away and as the scene fades to black, the older and wiser Scrooge shouts, “Go after her!” to his past self. It’s a pointless plea, as what’s done is done.
While Ebenezer is the sympathetic character in this scene, I relate to Belle. An idol has displaced me here at home. It’s not an unbridled love of money, however.
It’s Guava Juice.
And Dan. And Metthias, the Slow-Mo Guys, and The Backyard Scientist. It’s Minecraft, Snapchat and texting. It’s Candy Crush, Facebook, Twitter and every means of electronic diversion, keenly designed to grasp and hold attention.
My family is so thoroughly addicted to their tablets and phones, that I scarcely call us a family anymore. We’re roommates. We’re four people who share a domicile and some genetic material. It’s beyond disheartening and frustrating. It’s a very real problem, and I suspect I’m not alone.
At a time when 50% of teens feel “addicted” to their phones, and when parents experience acting-out behavior by children who feel like second-class citizens in comparison to their parents’ phones, it’s time to have a conversation. A real one, and then some change. But first, a look at a typical day in my house.
My roommates and me
When I arrive home from work around 4:30, my son is in the guest room watching YouTubers on his iPad. My daughter is in her bedroom either playing on her phone or watching something on Netflix. My wife, who works hard every day and definitely deserves downtime, is watching Netflix and playing Candy Crush on the couch. This is the scene until dinner time.
“Dinner” means everyone grabs a plate of whatever and immediately retires to the guest room, bedroom and couch to eat, alone, in front of their personal screen. When the meals are finished, the aforementioned roommates remain in their private areas, watching their private screens until it’s time for bed.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
I hate this arrangement. I loathe it. So I try to force change. “Put that away until after dinner.” “We’re eating at the table tonight, like a family. We’re going to talk to each other. We’re going to acknowledge each other’s existence.”
Sometimes it works. We’ll sit down together. People inhale their food in a matter of minutes and rush back to their screens. It isn’t a meal so much as a chore. An interruption. An inconvenience that must be endured.
Lest you think I’m innocent, or the suffering martyr: I often work at night on the various articles I write every week. So, you’ll likely find me writing on my laptop from 7:00 PM until whenever I go to bed, often around 11:00 or 12:00.
I also pull my phone from my pocket all the time. It’s awful and I sometimes feel powerless against that urge to “just check,” even when I did so literally seconds before.
It’s addiction, and it’s real.
There’s a great joke in the TV show Family Guy in which Quagmire is in the mall, trying to buy a phone. His friends grow impatient and urge him to hurry up and pick one. “Hold on,” he tells them, “I’m having a hard time deciding on which phone I’m going to look at every 30 seconds for the next two years.”
A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2016, Cell Phone Addiction: A Review, considered the classification of a true cell phone addiction. While the conclusion highlighted the fact that further investigation was required, its authors also noted that “…the problematic use of cell phones has been associated with personality variables, such as extraversion, neuroticism, self-esteem, impulsivity, self-identity, and self-image. Similarly, sleep disturbance, anxiety, stress, and, to a lesser extent, depression, which are also associated with Internet abuse, have been associated with problematic cell-phone use.”
Additionally, research conducted at Swansea University found physical effects of smartphone addiction.
“Professor Phil Reed, of Swansea University, said: ‘We have known for some time that people who are over-dependent on digital devices report feelings of anxiety when they are stopped from using them, but now we can see that these psychological effects are accompanied by actual physiological changes.’ There was an average 3-4% increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and in some cases double that figure.”
Something has to change. I see other kids in my neighborhood riding bikes all day and all evening. I hear them playing and laughing. Making memories, being creative, spending time with their own thoughts. Being kids.
Mind are staring at screens.
My plea to you (and to myself)
I’ve told my son that he’s only going to be a kid once. That nothing, nothing, feels worse than regret. That someday he’ll look back and wish he hadn’t wasted his childhood staring at a screen. He shrugs. He looks. He disappears from realty and retreats into the blue, glowing rectangle.
My friend Patrick is taking a one-year sabbatical from the internet. I recommend we do the same. Respond to emails from work, answer texts from loved ones and co-workers. Other than that, treat the phone an old-school telephone. Put it on the desk and when it rings, answer it. Otherwise, leave it alone. No Twitter. No Facebook. No Snapchat. You won’t miss anything. In fact, you’ll stop missing things.
Go to a public place like a park, a mall, a bar, a restaurant or what-have-you. Heck, attend a sporting event, a parade or a concert and notice how many people aren’t watching the event, but instead staring at their phone. I’d bet it’s the majority. We’re all missing everything, and I mean everything that’s happening right in front of our faces. You’re missing everything. Everything.
The electronic idol has replaced the experience of real life. Take it back. Become a family again, not just roommates. It’s extremely important. Nothing feels worse than regret.