This morning, I walked my youngest child to school. He chose to ride his tangerine scooter but only made it one block before halting abruptly to say: “I don’t like school.” My phone tucked close in my raincoat, I was tempted to check the time. We were running late. His two older siblings already queued up to walk inside our local elementary school. I chose to leave time alone and crouch down to his level.
Body tightened, my son stared into an empty yard preparing for a stand-off. I waited. Slowly, with permission, I pulled his frame onto my knee. We said nothing. I let my sweaty chin, slick from an early morning row, rest on the small of his neck. We waited.
I waited to hear what he may say but he said nothing. The breeze dissolved our worries, crouching there. Entwined.
Finally, I asked him what he needed. “Would you like daddy or me to wait with you on the playground until you go in the morning?” A nod. Not yet ready to chase down childhood like his brother and sister two and four years ahead.
A series of photos have been making their rounds again this week. In them, couples, families, friends, and strangers vacantly stare at their hands holding nothing.
The US photographer, Eric Pickersgill, created “Removed” to remind us of how strange that pose actually is. The Quartz piece featuring the photographs explains, “In each portrait, electronic devices have been “edited out” (removed before the photo was taken, from people who’d been using them) so that people stare at their hands, or the empty space between their hands, often ignoring beautiful surroundings or opportunities for human connection.”
“The results are a bit sad and eerie—and a reminder, perhaps, to put our phones away.”
Comments have poured in from around the world, people writing: “These pictures are really sad.” “This is why I lay my phone on the counter when I walk in the door.” “"Terrible"...everyone universally commented on their phones...then went straight on to the next tweet/post/email/video/newsfeed/blog.
When I look at photos and experiences like these, they scream out the question: What are we even doing?
A lot of ink has been spilled on the problem of phone addiction. We’ve heard about rampant loneliness, we’ve heard about reduced attention spans, we’ve heard about depression and the cost on relationships, physical and mental health. We’ve heard it all.
I’m less interested in the problem than I am in the solution.
I heard an excellent solution to the problem of tech overuse not long ago. In a special The Globe and Mail, “Disconnect” feature Nathalie Atkinson wrote: “What’s the easiest way to get off tech? Find something else to do and lean into it.”
Tiffany Shlain's new book, "24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week," releases today. In it, she outlines an elegant solution - one that’s worked for her family for more than ten years. One that’s existed for millennia. The concept is built around the concept of Shabbat or Sabbath - the day of rest.
What’s more compelling, I think though, is not the removal of devices for a 24 hour period beginning sundown every Friday, but what Shlain fills her time with instead. Baking bread. Gathering friends and family for a meal. Lighting candles. Presumably, with the lack of Netflix in bed, making love.
Find something else to do and lean into it.
I look at Eric Pickersgill’s photos now rounding out hundreds of millions of views and I think back to this morning. That photo could have been me. I could have stared down at my iPhone, with my son in my lap, and counted down the minutes for the dash to the bell. That could be me many other moments of the day. And, often it, is.
You know when it isn’t? It’s when I play the trade-off game in my head. When I focus, not on reducing screen time, but on what possibilities might lie in store if I spend my time and attention in other ways. Like leaving my phone in my pocket as I leave the schoolyard, alone, in the hopes of a chance conversation with a neighbour. I lean into that knowing one brief conversation can bring joy, a sense of connection like that with my son, that can fuel both of our entire days.
You know what? It happened. I was looking for it.
I look at those black and white photos of women, men, and children staring at their palms and my first thought is, What are we even doing? A better question is, What joys are we missing?
Let’s lean into those.