Why I Stopped Looking at My Phone During Breakfast
Every morning, I sit down with my coffee and peel back the pages of a newspaper. Sometimes, when the current news cycle is too much, I pen down a to-do list for the day. With an actual pen. On actual paper. The television is off. My phone is on Airplane mode. As a millennial woman in the modern world, I may as well be on the moon. It’s glorious.
It wasn’t always this way. My mornings used to consist of chugging coffee while thumb typing responses to emails in front of an early morning talk show. I’d wake up, roll over, and commence the endless scroll. Rarely would I find myself untethered to technology until crawling back into bed at the end of the day.
Many scientists believe that our brains are not equipped for this kind of information overload, and have seen it lead to mental fatigue and overwhelm. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So, eating oatmeal while flipping through news channels and checking my phone every time Instagram alerts me to a recent like on yesterday’s sunset photo is not doing my brain any favors. In fact, David Strayer, a researcher and professor at the University of Utah, found that “when you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources”.
Can we blame our smartphones or the latest voice-controlled gadget sitting on our kitchen counters, though? These devices are just doing what they’re designed to do. Adam Alter, social psychologist and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, told the New York Times that “technology is designed to hook us...Email is bottomless. Social media platforms are endless. Twitter? The feed never really ends. You could sit there 24 hours a day and you’ll never get to the end. And so you come back for more and more.”
Former Google employee turned design ethicist Tristan Harris stood on stage during a TED talk in Vancouver in attempt to pull back the curtain on the industry by saying that “a handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.” Technology, booted up before you even hit the start button on the coffee pot, is meant to take your brain hostage. He went on to say that it’s “changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.” Think about it: when was the last time you ate brunch with a loved one without checking in on social media? How often do you enjoy a mug of your go-to morning beverage without the dopamine-filled pings of your phone pulling at your attention?
This is not a campaign to throw our smartphones in the ocean or drag our televisions out to the curb. As MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle wrote in her 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, “we are not going to 'get rid' of the Internet. We will not go ‘cold turkey’ or forbid cell phones to our children. We are not going to stop the music or go back to the television as the family hearth." In many ways, we need technology to function in this society.
In today’s digital world, our brains are busier than ever before. We’re constantly bombarded by information, news, Twitter wars, email spam, all masquerading as need-to-know information. It’s exhausting work for our brains to filter through what matters and what doesn’t. Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, pointed out in an interview with the New York Times, "Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it."
I often think back to the breakfast tables of my youth. My parents drank coffee and trieddesperately to strike up a conversation with my siblings and I as we sleepily spooned cereal into our mouths. All of us would inevitably end up chatting about something along the lines of a recent field trip, a report card that needed to be signed or, when all else failed, the weather. The point is there was conversation, connection and actual face-to-face time that grounded us before we began our days. It mattered. It still matters.