Opinion: Is your iPhone making you absolutely miserable?

Opinion: Is your iPhone making you absolutely miserable?

October 19th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

My 7-year-old son was recently asked an interesting question: "If you could punish your dad for something he did wrong, what's the one thing you'd take away from him?"

"His iPhone," my son said immediately.


This came after an observation my wife made: "Baby, for somebody who didn't used to want a smartphone, you sure do like yours a lot."

In my defense, I made the comment about not wanting a smartphone when I thought they were just for talking, texting and social networking, none of which I consider entertainment.

But I soon discovered that smartphones are also windows into the world's digital library of books, magazines and newspapers. For a person like me, who reads and writes for a living, this endless buffet of words has proven irresistible. The iPhone is the first thing I reach for when I wake up in the morning, and plugging it into the charger is the last thing I do before I go to sleep at night.

My daily rounds include visits to the mobile apps of the New York Times, Politico, Slate, Fox News, USA Today and the Times Free Press. Then there are brief detours to check my bank balance and breaking news about the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also touch base with Facebook and Twitter at least once a day.

I didn't realize the depths of my digital addiction until I found myself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month with no Wi-Fi. Indeed, my iPhone was locked away in a stateroom safe while my family sailed on a Disney cruise ship for four days. (The fact that I couldn't remember how to turn the phone off on the first day of the cruise is telling.)

After a brief withdrawal period -- it felt weird not to have a phone in my front pocket -- I began to enjoy the feeling of being completely unplugged. There was no reading text messages about canceled soccer games. No impulsively checking the day's stock market report. No glancing at email to see if work beckoned. And especially, no feverishly hitting "refresh" during a Sunday afternoon Steelers game for real-time scoring reports.

Within 24 hours, I was not only not missing my phone, I was actively enjoying a quieter mind. My brain -- suddenly released from the tedium of vacuuming up information -- began to open up to the real world.

I stood on the deck and watched sea birds gliding alongside our ship. One day, I sat and watched our 7-year-old son taking a nap; his chest rising and falling, providing a cadence to my meditation. Another day, hearing thunder in the distance, I scanned the sky rather than calling up the radar app on my iPhone.

Yes, I soon found that life was altogether more pleasant in this phone-free state.

By the time we reached Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas, I was feeling sympathy for all the poor screen-gazers huddled in a Wi-Fi hotspot on a pedestrian bridge outside the city. Any other time I would be among them, but on this day I couldn't help but stand back and feel sad for them. Their faces were all lifeless. There was no conversation, no joy. These little screens have hypnotized the world, I thought.

I also observed that leaving the Internet behind for a few days was like turning off a fountain of fear.

The day before we sailed, the top 12 stories on the Fox News website were all about the Ebola virus. During nearly 100 hours onboard a ship with 4,000 passengers from three dozen nations, I never heard the word "Ebola" uttered once.

Could it be that the digital technology we are all becoming addicted to is actually making us unhappy, fearful and compulsive?

Even after we returned to Florida, I kept my phone silent for several hours. I couldn't help but laugh when I noticed at guy in a McDonald's in Valdosta, Ga., clutching a smartphone with both hands, studying the screen intently as he relieved himself.

Come on, man.

Back to real life now, I'm trying to curb my screen time and bottle some of that vacation bliss. I toss the phone into a desk drawer when I get to work, and my wife and I have redoubled our efforts to limit our two boys' screen time on school nights.

Still, on Monday night, with severe storms approaching, my iPhone glowed brightly on the bedroom dresser -- inviting me to check the weather radar for the fifth time that hour. Something inside me desperately wanted to see that angry, red storm blob move one pixel further to the east.

Meanwhile, our younger son scampered up into our king-size bed to escape the thunder.

I took a deep breath, turned over the iPhone -- hiding the screen -- and climbed under the covers with my boy.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.