Teens on phones

Smartphones can be a curse — and a blessing.

Shortly after my children came home for Thanksgiving week, I paused to email my office. I’d taken a few days off to be with my family, but a small work chore needed my attention, something a quick message would resolve.

Seeing the inbox on my smartphone told me that a few people were trying to reach me. Although an automated response announced my absence to everyone writing in, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to answer some of the messages while I was online. So I replied, which prompted replies to my replies, which I answered, too.

I lifted my eyes from the screen an hour and a half later, as if shaking off a trance, shocked by how much time had gone by. I also felt a lot of shame. My daughter, a young professional who lives several states away, had spent dearly on a plane ticket to be with us. My son, who attends a boarding school for gifted teens, had driven three hours to rejoin the family. And here I was, as a holiday approached, more connected to my phone than to my kids.

But I don’t think they missed me. My daughter was hunched over her laptop at the dining room table, catching up on her work emails. My son was in a nearby armchair, navigating some online applications for colleges. My wife, sharing the couch with me, had been answering office emails, too.

The screens connecting us with the world had obviously distanced us from each other, which seemed strange and sad, although not, I assume, peculiar to our household. In answering emails, I noticed many other people peeking from behind their out-of-office messages to answer their own mail. Like me, they were ostensibly on vacation, but really on the job.

This is the point, I guess, at which I should launch into a diatribe against digital technology, the great bugaboo of our age. In truth, the online revolution has done a great deal of good. My daughter has been in her first job for only a couple of months. A generation ago, as a new worker with no vacation time, she would have been obliged to stay physically close to her office this holiday season. But because my daughter can handle much of her work remotely on a computer, her supervisor allowed her to travel home for Thanksgiving. We wouldn’t have seen her otherwise.

That kind of innovation has been a great advantage for many of us, although we’re struggling right now to keep a blessing from becoming a curse. Because we can reach anyone at any time these days, connection too easily lapses into a compulsion.

As with any addiction, author Alan Lightman recently noted, “there’s never enough. We are dependent on the digital flow.”

Our kids will be back for Christmas. With any luck, as we sing “Silent Night,” our devices will be silent, too.


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.