Has the cell phone ruined our first world lives?

Published October 3, 2016   Posted in How to Think

Cell phones are quickly becoming the bane of our existence. They consume us.Β We feel lost without them. God forbid that something happens to them. Admit it, we tend to feel that when our phone breaks, a part of US breaks along with it.

Just for giggles, I conducted an experiment driving home from the gym a few weeks ago. It was around 9am on a weekday. The experiment was simple: Look into the next four cars that pass. How many drivers are fiddling with their phones?

The results were not all that surprising. The first car passed and the driver held a cell phone at eye level over the steering wheel rapidly pressing the keypad with their thumb. Okay, 1 for 1. Next…

The second car passed, and yet again, their cell phone diverted their attention. It looked like this person was scrolling through an email, or perhaps down a list of inbox messages. Great. 2 for 2.

The third driver passed and, to my surprise, no cell phone! Perfect…at least someone was focused on their driving responsibility rather than keeping up to date with email or text. The fourth person, sadly, failed. Cell phone in hand, slowing creeping into my lane. A chirp of my horn did the trick.

The results of my completely random and unscientific survey found three of the four drivers I observed that morning were distracted while behind the wheel of their cars. Par for the course.

Cell phones have their place

Though I enjoy bashing the very concept of mobile communication, our cell phones aren’t all bad. They enable potentially life-saving communication when we are out and about. If our car breaks down, we aren’t hoofin’ it to a gas station or flagging down any random Joe for help. Instead, we call for a tow truck. If we witness a crime, we can easily phone the police.

Cell phones also provide a reliable safety mechanism for our loved ones. Parents can discretely track their kids using cellular technology. Mapping applications get us to where we need to go without asking for directions or utilizing the lost art of map reading.

Some of us use our cell phones as a replacement for those time-keeping devices that we used to wear around our wrist. “Watches”, I think? I suppose the Apple Watch aims at reversing that trend.

However, I fear thatΒ cell phones are becoming a giant technological crutch for our society.

Cell phones crush life skills

Unfortunately, our reliance on cell phones removes essential skills that we humans used to possess. I’m sure we’ve all seen some shmuck walk directly into a stationary object (or person) while using their cell phone. Cell phones make us unaware of our surroundings. If danger looms, many of us simply have no idea unless we’re literally dragged out of harm’s way.

We also feel lost without our cellular lifeline, don’t we?

Remember that time you forgot your cell phone at home? You felt…different, didn’t you? I’ve felt that same feeling. We all have. “What if someone calls”? “I’m waiting for an important email!” “What if something happens and I need to make a call or text?”

And, what happens if we escape the familiar boundaries of cell coverage by, for example, driving into the fresh and crisp air of the mountains? Sure, we escape city life for a while, but then nobody can text us. We can’t talk on the phone. Our connection with the “real world” has been severed!

How did business EVER get done before cell phones? The devices that keep us connected are also ruining what could be a relaxing, stress-free existence.

How cell phones ruin lives

Cell phones provide much too easy of a distraction for far too many of us. When an inanimate object becomes our lives, we’ve quickly ruined something that should be our very top priority!

They are a popularity contest

Technology never stays the same. Year after year, there’s always an upgrade available. New phones. New plans. Unlimited data. 4G speeds. We will never be happy with the one that we have. Ka-ching!

They completely distract us, and we don’t care

When we prioritize our cell phone over our driving privileges, we not only endanger our own lives, but also the lives of those around us. We’re bad enough drivers when we ARE paying attention.

Text and DriveThe statistics on distracted driving are startling. At this very second, 660,000 drivers are using their phones while driving. Yearly, these devices cause 1.6 million crashes. Nearly 25% of crashes in the U.S. are caused by drivers on phones.

In the United States, ad campaigns encourage us to put our phones down while driving. Web sites provide the gruesome details of distracted driving. Safety videos are all over the place. Billboards remind us not to text and drive. Sometimes, they even try to be humorous (see above!).

But yet, most of us don’t care. We feel like we can handle it, so we do it anyway. After all, “It’s an important email”.

Our companies expect us to be available

Businesses know that we are all connected at the hip. From top level executives to grocery store baggers, the large majority of us have cell phones. The more senior you become, the greater the expectation that you’ll see and respond to email – at any time of day.

My company, for instance, “encourages” people to check their email while on vacation…you know, just in case. Taking phone calls are no big deal, they argue. We’re glued to our phones and the businesses we work for exploit that fact. If you don’t respond to an important email over the weekend, are you “uncommitted” to your company?

Unless you don’t have signal, you’re getting email. If you don’t respond, you choose not to respond. How dare you!

What say you? What role does your cell phone – if you have one – play in your life? If you forget your phone, do you feel like a part of you is missing?

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Comments

49 responses to “Has the cell phone ruined our first world lives?”

  1. I’ve managed to avoid the dreaded work cell phone. I’m actually probably one of the highest ranked employees without one. Even my wife who had worked at the same company and was significantly my jr had one. I would be my own worst enemy there as I have enough problems not checking email on my laptop after work.
    In terms of my personal phone I do feel like something is missing without it, but perhaps less then others. I’m sure it makes me weird but it bugs me no more or less then keys or wallet not in a pocket. I.e. A feeling that I forgot something. Then again I didn’t start with a data plan until last year, had a strict do math without a calculator beat into my head at university, and don’t play apps. Since that last year though I do feel the phone more permitting my life as I find myself checking the Internet at random times.

    • Steve says:

      I had a company-issued cell phone once and, coincidently, it was back when I was a junior-level employee interestingly enough. I was also in a “support role”, so that helped to rationalize the expense of a Blackberry. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Using the cell phone behind the wheel is scary as every and it is scary how many people do it. Just this weekend, some jack wagon came dangerously close to rear-ending me…I was bracing for it as I looked in my rear view mirror and of course he had his cell phone above the wheel checking something…just horrible.

    Besides that though, the worst part is being so accessible during nights and weekend to work with it…

    • Steve says:

      I hear you, Green Swan.

      And the “phone above the wheel” thing is interesting. I understand that people think having the phone that high up enables their eyes to bounce back and forth between the phone and *what’s happening around them*, but it also makes it obvious to everyone else that they are being stupid pricks, endangering the lives of themselves and everyone around them. The technique doesn’t even appear to work for some people (like the person who nearly rear-ended you).

  3. It amazing how companies and businesses expect staff to stay connected outside of the office during off hours/ weekends/ vacations. We need the ability to disconnect from work during these times. I recently switched roles, my old role I was expected to be available 24×7, in my new role I am not. I’m having a tough time getting over the fact that I don’t need to check my phone all the time. I feel guilty when I don’t.

    • Steve says:

      I don’t think there is any amount of money worth the 24×7 roll. If you can’t get away from the office at night or over the weekend, it’s just not worth it. We weren’t made to do this stuff. I understand that some people *will*, and businesses take advantage of that. Unfortunate, for sure!

  4. New technology is always a tricky wire to walk, because the positives keep getting better and better, but the negatives keep getting worse and worse. The key is actively working to avoid the negatives while still getting the benefits. As a society we’ve done a terrible job of this with cell phones.

    I don’t get work email on my cell phone. Some people in my office do, but everyone knows by now that if you need me then you need to get ahold of me during office hours. (I also recognize that I am very lucky to work in a place where this is an acceptable option.) I’ve also been consciously leaving my phone behind during some walks and errands and such to get used to that feeling of disconnect again.

    Using the cell behind the wheel is something that definitely needs to stop. It’s one thing to allow a cell phone to ruin your own work/life balance or your own social life. It’s entirely another thing to put other people’s lives at risk. I hope that texting and driving is something that can be stigmatized and driven down in the same way that drinking and driving has been.

    • Steve says:

      “I hope that texting and driving is something that can be stigmatized and driven down in the same way that drinking and driving has been.”

      I hope so too, but even then, DUIs are very, very common. Driving is just *dangerous* however you slice it.

      I agree that the positives keep getting better while the negatives keep getting worse. The funny thing is…it’s the positives that ultimately encourage the negatives. With new and better technology, we feel the need to use our phones more. But the more we use them, the more dangerous they become.

      Wicked spiral!

  5. Sadly, everything you wrote is true.The genie is out of the bottle.

    I’ll be the first to admit it — I DON’T drive and use the phone at the same time.

    Don’t believe me?

    I don’t use it, because I don’t have any data plan for my phone! When I’m driving, there’s nothing I CAN do on the phone (beyond calls), so I don’t bother!

    A simple solution that saves me tons of money.

    Perhaps phones should detect when we’re driving, and deactivate. Sure would make the roads safer.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Mr. Tako – yup, not having data is a great way to avoid using the phone too much…but I believe that texting is still possible without data, yes?

      Good on you for saving money by avoiding the data plan.

    • “Perhaps phones should detect when we’re driving, and deactivate. Sure would make the roads safer.”
      I’m not so much a fan of that. My GPS in my car blocks out changing addresses while driving as well. In principle it keeps me from getting distracted. In practice I can’t start driving while my wife in the passenger seat changes addresses. The same with the phone. My kids being able to talk to grandmom on my wife’s phone while I drive sometimes allows my concentration on the road to increase.

  6. Arrgo says:

    Cell phones aren’t always a bad thing if used in moderation. The problem is I see too many people always looking down at their phone. Then there’s the jerk who just keeps sitting there when the light turns green!

    • Steve says:

      Hey Arrgo – as with anything in life, moderation is always key. There’s nothing wrong with cell phones…provided we don’t go overboard with them and begin endangering the lives of everyone around us. Then, it becomes not so cool. πŸ™‚

  7. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older, but the cell phone doesn’t play as big of a role in my life as I see in those around me. I admit, I do feel different without it, but I really think it’s because I’m afraid my kids will need something and won’t be able to reach me. The safety issue is huge for me. My 16 y.o. “lost” his phone for about 24 hours last week and I was very uncomfortable knowing that he was out there in the wild without his phone (what if there was an emergency!?). That said, the last three days, I may have looked at my phone for 15 minutes total – and I had a totally relaxing, fun weekend. It’s great to disconnect sometimes.

    • Steve says:

      It certainly is great to disconnect at times, but like you said, there are also ways where cell phone technology can come in very, very handy. Then again, I remember being out and about as a kid without a cell phone, and things worked out okay. You can never be too careful these days, though. πŸ™‚

  8. Mr. PIE says:

    Jeez, the expectations of my employer grew exponentially when I was first afforded a work phone and iPad. Luckily, I have a manager who leads by example on weekends by not sending email or responding to anything. That really helps.

    A younger generation are just growing up with the expectation that you can be ON 24-7. Unless you exercise some discipline a la Mr. Tako, then it is a treadmill you get sucked onto and can’t easily get off.
    For those younger in their career, it becomes hard to say no when peers are getting ahead of them by being….ahem…committed.

    • Steve says:

      It might be interesting to demand an employer to pay for your cell phone if they expect you to be available 24/7. If it’s important enough to call you on nights and weekends, then it’s important enough to pay you for the “privilege” of being available. πŸ™‚

      • Mr. PIE says:

        Ooh, I like your thinking.

        Anything that will allow more funds to be directed to Vanguard and hasten my exit from living the call center life is very welcome in my book!!

  9. I hate my phone. I hate that I go to sleep answering parent and student emails…and wake up doing the same thing. I’d love to go back to a “dumb phone”. There are some budgeting and money-saving apps that I do enjoy, but I really feel like it adds extra pressure to my life being connected all the time. I was one of my last teacher friends to take the plunge into the smart phone world (3 years ago?). And the expectation was still there. 24/7 email access means the expectation for an immediate response is always there. Now, I just give into it more. Sigh.

    • Steve says:

      It’s all too easy to give in to it, especially when parents get angry and want a reply immediately. I can only imagine how that process works for you.

  10. Yes, yes, and yes. I think over time we’ll start to see a serious pushback against cell phones as we know them. Hipsters will either decide to ditch phones completely to go “off grid,” or they’ll become even more integrated into our existing tech or even our bodies. *shudder*

    The car is definitely not the place to be checking Facebook, everyone!!! Just pull over if you really need to send a text; it’s not worth the consequences. If you have trouble with texting and driving, put your phone in a bag in the trunk or in the glove compartment.

    I can go without my cell phone for a day; but I do admit that I get bored pretty easily without it. πŸ˜‰ I’ve had to set clear boundaries with my employers. If I’m not provided with a work phone, I have zero obligation to answer calls after 5 pm or on weekends. And doubly so if I’m on vacation; that’s just not okay. It makes me look bad, but in my eyes it’s completely inappropriate to ask someone to work when they’re on vacation.

    • Steve says:

      Good on you for managing expectations with your employer. I definitely agree – if it’s important enough to contact you during weekends, holidays or vacations, then it’s also important enough for that employer to pay for a device to keep you tethered to the job. If you’re paying for the device, then it’s fair game to say “no” as far as I’m concerned.

      Well done. πŸ™‚

  11. Justin says:

    I came late to the cell phone game. I never carried one until 2011 when I got a new job and they paid for a smartphone. Now I love it, but use it on a limited basis. It’s great for reading e-books, maps, and using apps to order food or get discounts. Also great for researching stuff when on the go. I use about 1-2 minutes of voice time per month and never text anyone. Most of the day it sits on the counter charging (unless I’m reading an e-book!).

    I am guilty of using it on the road occasionally when I’ve got the map app open or I’m stuck at a traffic signal for 3-4 minutes. I’d miss it if it were gone, but it wouldn’t be a huge deal I don’t think.

    • Steve says:

      You seriously didn’t miss anything, Justin. It definitely sounds like you’re using a cell phone for its positive features and haven’t let it completely take over your life. I’m sure you’re instilling those same capabilities (yes, I believe “capabilities is the right word here) in your kids, and they will definitely be better and more aware people because of it.

  12. I love my smartphone and all the cool stuff it lets us do on the road. International mobile data changed the way we travel for the better and helped us navigate a lot of potentially challenging situations — from transit schedules to translations. Maybe we missed out on a few funny stories because of it, but I’ll happily trade that for reduced stress.

    But I hate the way smartphones have changed the way we engage with our friends. I can’t remember the last meal out at which no one had their phone in hand at some point, completely distracted from the conversation. Young people get the brunt of the criticism for this, but even when we were out to dinner with my parents a couple weeks ago, they were both using their phones for half the meal! Come on!

    • Steve says:

      Hey Matt,

      Oh, I get the cell phone has been a gold mine traveling internationally. That is one area where mobile communication has definitely changed our lives for the better. The meal thing is a pet peeve of mine. Granted, I usually leave my cell phone sitting on the table so I can glance over to it whenever I get a notification, but I rarely actually USE the phone when I’m at the table. Hate that.

  13. I avoid it while driving but am definitely very tied to my phone. Working from home (or wherever I happen to be) means I need to do a lot of email, messaging, occasional writing, etc. while being mobile – which generally involves my phone in some capacity.

    • Steve says:

      Like you, I also work from home, so the expectation of being available where ever you happen to be is a little more justified in this position. True that!

  14. Joe says:

    I agree. Cell phones has taken over way too much of our existence. I rarely fiddle with my phone when I’m driving, but I was guilty when I was in San Diego. I need help finding direction and the driving direction was awesome. I rerouted me when there was an accident ahead. In the old days, I’d just have to go through the traffic jam because I’m not familiar with the roads.
    The other functions are nice, but I don’t rely on them as much. Mostly I use it for social media stuff when I’m sitting on a bus. That could wait until I get home. Luckily, I don’t have a corporate overlord anymore. πŸ™‚

    • Steve says:

      Like you, the mapping capability has gotten us out of traffic jams before too. The ability for a phone to map you is one of those features that are especially helpful when you’re driving, ironically enough. πŸ™‚

  15. Jack says:

    It’s up to you to decide what level of connectivity you need.

    I’ve done 24×7 on call pager duty. Not for me, and I’ll never do it again. Ditto for jobs that require off-hours work.

    My acceptable connectivity for work, is that I’m available to my management and peers after hours for emergencies, but otherwise I’m offline. That’s not acceptable for some companies or some positions, so my conscious choice limits my options. I’m fine with that.

    That said, personally, I’m available to my family 24×7. First with a pregnant wife, now with babies. Having my cell phone reassures me that I can go out in the world and provide for my family, and they can reach me if they need to, no matter where I am. We’ll see how long that lasts once they become teenagers…

    • Steve says:

      I like your attitude, Jack. You’ve defined your boundaries with cell technology and approach corporate America appropriately. If that limits some of your options, that’s fine – those are options that you don’t wish to explore anyway, so no real loss.

      Thanks for the comment!

  16. I appreciate you covering this topic, Steve. I’ve noticed that if I forget my phone at home I feel less safe. What if something happens and I need to make a call? Realistically, though, I’m surrounded by people with cell phones unless I’m driving in the middle of nowhere, which is relatively infrequent.

    The distraction aspect is the reason I don’t have a smart phone. I feel like a weirdo or “behind the times”, and I’m sure at some point I will get a smart phone. But for now, it makes it easier for me to concentrate on my kids, my friends, or whatever I’m trying to get done to not have constant internet access in my hand.

    • Steve says:

      That’s an excellent point, Kalie. Even if emergencies happen, we are usually surrounding by people with cell phones and, if you absolutely need to use one, you can probably make that happen. Good on you for rejecting the smart phone option. πŸ™‚

  17. Tawcan says:

    Surprised usage of cellphone while driving isn’t banned in some places still. It’s extremely dangerous.

    Whatever happened to the good old way to map reading? That’s one skill that’s going away with the usage of cellphone and GPS/map.

    I remember a while ago one of my coworkers said “with cellphone and meeting notification, I feel like a robot, checking my phone whenever it beeps.”

    That’s why I have almost all of the notifications turned off on my phone. πŸ™‚

    • Steve says:

      Hey Tawcan – but sadly, even if it is banned, that won’t prevent many people from doing it. Drunk driving, after all, is banned *everywhere*, but you still see people doing it. With cell phones it would be even worse as EVERYBODY has one and virtually nobody believes that it affects them when they drive all that much.

  18. Maarten says:

    Ironically I’m typing this comment on my phone while driving my boat. In my defense, I’m going 3 miles an hour and I seem to be the only one out here.

    It’s sad to see how phones have taken over. I’m more worried about the dangers of distracted driving and work intrusion then some of the other social aspects.

    As parents of young children we are trying to figure when it’s the right time to get them one. I don’t like it. At the same time we are thrilled with the ability to see our type 1 diabetes son’s glucose reading no matter where he is.

    I know the anti regulators will get all up in arms but wouldn’t it be great to have the manufactures disable the texting/browsing features while driving g. I’m convinced that technically it would be possible.

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Nice. I think you can be forgiven by texting while…boating. I can see how the decision to get your child a cell phone is a very, very big one. On one hand you want to be in communication with them, but on the other hand you don’t want them completely distracted by it. Tough call.

      It is technically possible to do so, but there will always be a way around it – and like you said, there will be vitriol if such a plan were to be proposed. πŸ™‚

  19. SR says:

    I can’t wait until the phone obsession loses it’s appeal. I’m so sick of people drifting into my lane because they’re texting instead of driving.

    I went to breakfast yesterday morning and looked around the restaurant at all the people playing with their phones. There was one table that was just so sad. A family was waiting for their food to be served. The Dad was talking on his phone, the Mom was playing with her phone, the little girl (4 or 5 years old) was staring at a movie on a phone they stuck in front of her. The entire time they were there, they never spoke to each other. It was awful to watch.

    • Steve says:

      Me either, SR – I basically only use my phone as a camera. It’s like I’m carrying an 8MP camera with me where ever I happen to be, which works out well for me. But the text-drifters…probably aren’t just using their phones as cameras. πŸ™‚

      I’ve witnessed similar situations in public where everybody at the table was on their phone. At least you saw someone who was actually talking on it. In my case, it’s generally just people texting or checking Facebook.

  20. I was thinking many of these points in the car this weekend. My friend was on their phone driving an it really annoyed me. This is one of my biggest pet peeves as it is dangerous and makes me wonder how important that text/ snap must be. As a young millennial I am starting to revolt against the amount of time I spend on social media and staring at a screen.

    I used to be one of the many people that came home and spent hours scrolling through social media. I have realized that it adds very little value to my life and I can use my time better. I no longer use data on my cell phone so when I am walking around with friends it forces me to communicate rather than stare at a screen. Sometimes I walk out the house now and don’t even recognize I left it home unless I was expecting a call.

    • Steve says:

      I used to be very similar to you, Stefan. I’d spend all day at work staring into a computer monitor, then come home and basically do the exact same thing, only doing different things. I still spend a lot of time on the computer, but my social media usage has dropped significantly. I maintain the TSR Twitter account, but that’s about it. Buffer makes it easy to take some time and queue up a bunch of stuff…then forget. πŸ™‚

  21. I can’t wait for driverless technology to be fully implemented. It seems like more and more too many people are diverting their eyes to the latest tweet and not enough time to actually driving. Hopefully once driverless technology is improved we will see a dramatic reduction in accidents.

  22. I’ll admit, I’m horrible with my cell phone usage. I’m constantly on my phone, always checking every little ding my phone makes. It is a crutch in a way. At the same time, my phone is, without a doubt, my most important tool. You can run an entire empire from your phone if you want!

    If you’re interested in this type of tech analysis, you might want to check out a book called “The End of Absence.” It’s basically and interesting look into how the world has changed with the growth of internet and phones, and what we’ve lost as a result.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the book recommendation, Financial Panther! I’ll be sure to check it out. And it’s true…cell phones have the power to do some truly amazing things…it’s up to us to determine whether or not those things are positive or not. πŸ™‚

  23. Walty's friend says:

    The bill board in your post made me laugh…thank you. Agree with your perception that cell phones are having a detrimental effect on our society. Thanks for taking the time to write your posts, I enjoy reading them.

  24. Lady Locust says:

    Ha! I love this – so agree. My husband sometimes gets upset with me because I don’t have my phone in my pocket. I’ll leave it in my purse so I’m not interrupted &/or I’ll leave the sound off. It annoys me, though as you said they do have their place.
    One of my pet peeves is when I am talking to someone and their eyes are directly on their phone. I usually stop talking mid sentence. They’ll look at me like “what’s wrong?” When they make eye contact I continue. Sometimes you can’t even get someone’s attention as they are so “engrossed.” Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now:)

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Thanks for the comment. That’s one of my pet peeves, too. I interpret someone who’s looking at their phone while I am talking to them as disinterested in the conversation. Sometimes I’ll stop as well, and they almost seem surprised that I’d think they *WEREN’T* interested.

      It’s like…come on man! πŸ˜‰

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