Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.October 26, 2016
(iStock photo)(iStock photo)

It was a “day from hell,” the singer-actress Patti LuPone, starring in “Shows for Days” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, told The New York Times (7/10/15). A woman at the end of the second row had been texting, texting, texting, and Ms. LuPone had had enough. She left the stage, approached the offending woman and took the phone right out of her hands. The audience clapped and gasped and the show went on.

In a midtown subway station four silent women in black, on a bench, bent over their smartphones, each in her own world, and texted or read while an unconscious ragged man sprawled helpless at their feet. I checked to see if he was dead.

In a New Yorker cartoon a wedding couple at the altar has just been asked, “Do you...?” And the minister stands there helpless as the couple, their backs to him, check their cell phones.

In 2014, an America editorial, “Our Digital Future” (2/17/14), acknowledges the problems that accompany progress: Online dialogue has “taken a horrific turn,” and the pope, who deemed the internet a “gift from God,” warned that digital connectivity can isolate us from those closest to us.

Since that time the skies have darkened. The intellectual journalists—The Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Magazine, The American Scholar, The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post Style section—suggest that phones have become enemies of empathy. They concentrate on three problems: laptops and smartphones in the classroom, the impact on family life and the development of the young person’s character. David Brooks, in The Times on Oct. 7, points to the “decline in the number of high quality friendships."

According to The Chronicle (9/16/16), students retain more from a printed text than from a digital one, and students who write in notebooks perform better than those who type on laptops. Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, tells of a neuroscientist who had observed students’ fractured attention spans but didn’t think it applied to her until she found it impossible to focus on a Herman Hesse classic. She learned that the “skimming, scanning, and scrolling of the web” had damaged her ability to “read deeply.” The New York Times health columnist Jane M. Brody reports a Pew Research finding that teenagers send an average of 34 texts each night after they get into bed, leading to common and harmful sleep deprivation, loneliness and depression (7/17/15).

Sherry Turkle (New York Times, 9/27/15) recounts the story of a 15-year-old girl who was crushed when her father took her out to dinner and pulled out his cell phone to “add facts” to the conversation. “Daddy,” she said, “stop Googling. I want to talk with you.” Studies show that the mere presence of the phone on a table changes both what people talk about and the degree of connection they feel.

In a restaurant recently, a family of 12 gathered around the table, leaving two young boys to themselves at the far end, where, through most of the evening, they amused themselves by sharing pictures on their cellphones. The event taught them nothing about how to interact with other people. According to Caitlin Dewey (The Washington Post, 7/19/14), a “mountain of studies,” indicates that “cellphone use makes us more selfish, more easily distracted, and more stressed.” Pope Francis (reported in Zenit, 11/11/15) said, “A family that almost never eats together, or is not at the table but watching TV or on their smartphones, is hardly a family.”

The blogger Andrew Sullivan discovered that the internet was killing him. Every hour spent on the internet, he sensed on retreat, was not in the real world but in a “wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise...a sea of craned necks and dead eyes...constantly looking down.” He had forgotten that being with a person means being “experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice” (New York magazine, 9/19).

Meanwhile, friendships demand hard work, a willingness to listen, leave doors and minds open, ready to travel as well as share a dinner of pasta and wine plus favorite books, films and songs. Can a smartphone nurse this experience? Of course it can, if we keep it, for the most part, out of sight.

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