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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

It's Springtime In Kansas City. Can We Look Up From Our Phones Now?

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Over the course of a long, pandemic winter, we may have gotten awfully cozy with our phones. And yes, I'm talking to the grownups.

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My fellow adults, we have a problem. Our screentime is out of control.

It's a problem I once observed from a comfortable distance because I was shockingly late to the smartphone party. There was nothing noble about my reluctance. At least, not at first. I'm just cheap. I only buy new gadgets when I absolutely have to.

But over time, I started noticing how these devices were shaping the behavior of people around me. In restaurants, couples weren't talking, or even making eye contact. In line at coffee shops, my people-watching habit grew monotonous as everyone's posture became identical: the ubiquitous hunch-and-scroll.

I knew it could happen to me. At home, my laptop had already hypnotized me, narrowing the scope of my attention to the 15-inch rectangle of my screen. The last thing I wanted was for an even smaller screen to have that kind of power over me, not just in my house, but everywhere.

So I clung to the innocence of my flip-phone. Of course, it was only a matter of time. And whatever boundaries I once had when I finally did get a smartphone have completely eroded thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

There's no big mystery behind it. When your work life, social life, extended family, grocery shopping, entertainment and news consumption all collapse into the digital sphere, the device that connects you takes hold with a mighty grip.

I let it.

I wanted to stay in touch with friends in separate bubbles. I needed to know what was happening in the news, with crises evolving so quickly that I couldn't stop checking for near-constant updates. Had democracy crumbled while I was eating dinner? I couldn't be sure. It might only take a few minutes to get the answer, but it took me much longer than that to emerge from those meandering investigations.

Well you know what? It's spring. I'm tired of glowing screens and terrible posture. I'm ready to live my life untethered, with the weather finally on my side. Porch-hangs with friends, walks with my brother in Loose Park, daytrips to Lawrence to skip rocks with my kid by the lake. It's all possible.

Only, I'm not sure I remember how to stay in the moment and off my phone.

"One of the hard things about the pandemic, especially for people who work from home in white collar jobs, is that the dividing line — whatever dividing line we had — between work and home has completely disappeared," says Ian Sherr, explaining his take on why screen usage has skyrocketed in the pandemic.

Sherr's been reporting on the intersection of technology, family and work for CNet for years. Most coverage of screentime focuses on how to curb usage among kids and teenagers; Sherr, however, pays close attention to adults.

He thinks that what's happened to us with our phones this past year is probably not good.

"A lot of younger people — Gen Z, for example — they don't, they live in small apartments if they're lucky. They don't even have like a corner of their apartment as their 'office'. And so it, it actually becomes really hard to disconnect," Sherr says.

The thing is, it's not just my work that's on my phone. It's most of my relationships. And not all of those can get back to happening in-person, even when my porch re-opens for business. I'm slowly reconnecting with family, but friends might take longer. If I put my phone down, what then?

Jeffrey Hall studies friendship at the University of Kansas. He says friendships have already suffered a lot this year, having nothing to do with our phones.

"The fact is that the only way that people have been maintaining their relationships for, I don't know, a hundred years is through a phone device," Hall says, noting that letters, and later email, have shared the load.

But in the past, these things just patched over short periods apart. You called a friend to make plans to meet up. You sent a letter to a sister who moved away, to stay in touch between visits.

"There has to be a time of renewal," Hall explains. "There has to be an opportunity to come back face to face, to get excited about and to plan for, and to wait for the next opportunity."

In a world without in-person visits to plan, things have gotten weird, especially in relationships where texting is the main form of communication. Texting is what Hall calls "asynchronous," meaning there are gaps — sometimes long ones — between a message and a reply. After what feels like a long conversation, he says that if you go back and count the messages, you're likely to realize that typically, very little has actually been said.

Text-based friendships in the digital space don't feel futuristic to Hall; they seem archaic. They remind him of 19th-century friendships that relied on letter-writing, back when visiting a person was hard to do.

"Think of the way that 19th-century poets and presidents wrote about their best friends: I can't wait to have your warm embrace near me dah, dah, dah, dah," he explains. "I think we're in the same place right now. We're desperate. We're desperate to have that shared space and physicality and technology has just kind of sustained us until that point has come."

But the other thing, Hall says, is that we've totally run out of common-ground topics for conversation. With nearly every facet of life touched by the pandemic, there's not much left that could be considered low-key, non-stressful or fun to talk about.

That being the case, I think I can let go of my fear that my friendships will suffer if I loosen my grip on the phone. Maybe I'll actually find something to talk about, out in the world, if I put it down.

I'm going to start with 2 pieces of advice Ian Sherr gave me on how to stage a screentime self-intervention. The point isn't to throw my phone in a lake forever. It's just to make it more like other tools I use.

1) Start with an electronics-free zone or an electronics-free day of the week.

A little bit of separation at designated times or in designated spaces can be a reminder of another way to be in the world, Sherr says, explaining that most experts encourage an electronics-free bedroom, to help you break the habit of reaching for your phone the second you wake up.

An electronics-free day might feel out of reach for people whose phones connect them to work, but Sherr says that may be even more of a reason to try it, to reset that expectation of constant responsiveness.

2) Reach for the phone with purpose.

Never reaching for a phone, with all the things we use our phones to do, is not realistic. But Sherr recommends going through a mental exercise of asking yourself — non-judgmentally — why you're doing it, then making a conscious decision about whether it's worth it, given what else is happening around you and the other options you may have. If you decide you do, in fact, need to grab your phone for a specific reason, pause to first determine how long it should take, and stick with that timeframe.

These things sound reasonable, yet dramatic. A whole day without my phone? Parts of my house where it's off-limits?

But if the last year has proven anything, it's that we're capable of changing our routines.

And if none of this works, then yeah. I might resort to throwing the phone in the lake.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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