Death By Smart Phone

July 18th, 2014 By Steven Knope, MD

Before we get started, a quick disclaimer: No animals were harmed in the making of this newsletter. However, I cannot say the same for my awesome medical assistant, Sheri. Before you get too upset with me for attacking Sheri, understand that she asked for it! She literally asked me to write this newsletter about a conversation we had about smart phones, during which time she was mercilessly humiliated and abused. When I asked her why she wanted me to write the newsletter, Sheri sarcastically quipped, “For the good of mankind. If my pain can make at least one life better, it will have been worth it.”

Sheri’s Great News!

As I walked into the office last week, Sheri was very excited. Her teenage daughter was away on a school trip. The teacher apparently had a new app for her smart phone, which allows one to immediately convert real-life experiences into digital self-advertisement. These images can then be tweeted, blurted or otherwise belched into the mindless world of social media for the purpose of showing your “friends” what an interestingly life you lead. Sheri said, “Look at this, Dr. Knope. Isn’t this amazing?! My daughter is swimming with over 1000 dolphins. This new app allows people to send a video instantly and post it on Facebook.” Being the loving and supporting boss that I am, I thought for a moment and said, “No. This is utter crap!” Sheri was shocked. I offered up a thought that she is still digesting. I said, “If the students and their teachers have had the great fortune of suddenly finding themselves swimming with a mega-pod of dolphins, why don’t they live in the moment?! This is a truly amazing event. Why don’t they enjoy this experience for the unique event that it is, then come home, sit down with you, and tell you face-to-face about their trip?”

Death by Cell PhoneThe Offer

After sticking this needle into Sheri’s balloon, I asked her how much time she spends on her smart phone. I then asked how much time she spends on social media and watching TV. It was hours every week; hours in which she was interacting with pixels on a screen, instead of interacting with real people and real life. I made Sheri an offer. I said, “I will give you $100 if you give me your cell phone and stay off of all forms of social media and TV for 7 days.” She looked at me like I had two heads! “No way,” was her response. Several of her family and friends were mortified by my paltry offer. They asked, “Is that really all he offered you?!” One friend told Sheri that a more reasonable sum for such a profound sacrifice would be $1,000!

It Starts With TV

I explained to Sheri that I gave up my TV 15 years ago after a challenge from a friend. He had no TV. He did not offer me any money to get rid of mine, he just pointed out the obvious. He said, “Let’s look at the potential benefits. You would be more productive, you’d have more time to read and your kids would be smarter, but other than that, your life wouldn’t change much.” I got the message. He had shamed me into waking up. I got rid of my TV the next day. When you tell people that you don’t watch TV, they immediately think that you belong to some weird religious cult. Then, they start apologizing for their own behavior, saying things like, “I rarely watch TV. I just have one to watch the news.” The truth is that you miss very little by not watching TV.

The Smart Phone; Your Personalized, Portable TV Set
I then told Sheri, as a physician, I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t want a smart phone. I don’t want to text people. I don’t want the constant interruptions. Time to think critically and work without interruptions is very important to me. I also don’t want to take “selfies” and send them to my imaginary friends on some social media site. I have a pager if people need me. I have a satellite phone that I use for outgoing calls, so that I can return pages from anywhere. But I do not want to carry a personalized TV set – a smart phone – so that I can be entertained and distracted from the real world and the real people in it. Pixels on a screen are not a substitute for a real life.

My Son Took the Challenge

I went home and told my family about my discussions with Sheri over dinner. My son is now 15-years-old. He listened as I told him that Sheri thought I was offering her a raw deal. After hearing the story he blurted out, “I’ll do it! I’ll give you my phone for a week for 100 bucks!” He immediately got up and went to his bedroom to get his smart phone. There was no hesitation. You see, he’s going to turn 16 in October. He is saving for a car. At age 15, he’s figured out that a car will give him real freedom. A week of not texting on a smart phone is worth $100 to him, because it will put him just a little bit closer to having that car. (Remember the Marshmallow video?)

My Son’s Brainwashing

In fairness to Sheri, my son has been systematically brainwashed about smart phones, TV and social media for years. He knows that I hate it. Five years ago I decided to buy a cabin up on Mt. Lemmon. I wanted to have more uninterrupted time with my family. Since I am available to my patients 24/7, I needed a getaway that was near enough to travel to and from the hospital quickly, but far enough away from the distractions that we could have more down time on weekends. My kids were 3 and 10 at the time. From the beginning, I marveled as I watched my kids play in the woods, chase bugs and run with other children outside. Some of our best family experiences over the past 5 years have been on that mountain – snowshoeing during the winter, running from Africanized bees in the summer, watching all the amazing animals. The cabin has really changed the way that we interact. And as a teenager, my 15-year-old son actually looks me in the eye when he talks to me. He doesn’t even realize that this is unusual for a teen. He communicates well with people of all ages, both verbally and non-verbally, and I think the mountain has a lot to do with this. He’s been forced to develop people skills.

Electronic distractions Are Not Harmless

Though some of you may believe that I overreacted to Sheri, and that my views on TV and smart phones are extreme, consider this: The Labor Department’s annual survey of how we spend our time  just reported that “Americans’ No. 1 hobby remains watching television. In 2013, respondents said they spent an average of two hours, 46 minutes a day watching TV.” What an extraordinary waste of time! By contrast, only 29 minutes per day were spent in “educational” pursuits. This explains why so many Americans are uninformed.

There are only so many moments that you have in this life. Each moment that you spend looking at a TV or digital screen is a moment that you are not engaged with a loved one or doing something that has real meaning to you. It is a zero-sum game. And when you overuse this technology, it is only the sellers of such technology that win. You are the loser. You get fatter, dumber and weaker.

Of course, some uses of digital technology are invaluable. I depend upon computers and digital textbooks in the practice of medicine every day. I am not against technology with a purpose. I am against technology for the purpose of constant entertainment and distraction. I am against the digitally-driven, narcissism that is fostered by social media. I’ve got news for the people who live for Facebook: You are not Brittney Spears. She has 50-million people viewing her videos. Nobody really cares about what is on your Facebook page.

Why Sheri Wants to Be Abused

Sheri doesn’t know it yet, but I think the reason that she wanted me to write this newsletter – the reason that she wants to be openly called out – is that she wants to make some changes in her life. She is a smart person and she wants to get more out of life. She knows that a digital life is a poor substitute for the real thing. She knows that our patients and her friends will read this newsletter. People will ask her about her screen time in the future. I believe this about Sheri because she has already made some changes since our discussion. She has stopped sitting in front of the TV every night. Instead, she is taking walks with her daughter, her friends, and her dog. And guess what? She likes it!

People are starting to see what this technology is doing to our minds and our souls. A friend of mine just sent me a video called, “Look up!” It has been viewed by over 43-million people so far. This video shows us what we are missing when we bury our heads in our smart phones. It shows us how these distractions can cause us to miss life-changing events, altering how we live and even whom we might marry. If there is someone in your life that would benefit from this video, send it to them. If you are spending too much time in front of a screen, STOP! Doing so will allow you to take back your life.


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