Dear Lauren,

I read a lot these days about people being too connected to their phones. I’m not sure if I agree, and I’m wondering what your take is.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

There are two factors to consider with every move we make: the practicalities of the here and the now, and the question of what values are we imparting to our friends, our co-workers, our siblings, our children (which you guys will have in a few short years), and the people around us who make up our community and our world.

If it becomes commonplace to be looking at our phone when we’re checking out at the store, instead of exchanging human pleasantries with the clerk, that’s a value that we’re reinforcing in our culture every time we do it. I was taken aback the other day when I saw a baby sitting in a shopping cart interacting with an iPad while his mother shopped; he wasn’t observing his surroundings, wasn’t interacting with the people in the store, wasn’t connecting to his mother, wasn’t even just resting. It concerned me as to the proclivities and social abilities and lessons in living we’re cultivating.

In Insurgent (the second book of the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth), the Amity faction are able to stay completely peaceful and chilled out by some sort of marijuana-ish “peace serum” which is baked into their bread. Basically, the population is kept peaceful by being drugged. I don’t want that for our world. I don’t want people to have to use iPads to keep children happy in grocery stores. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve taken small children shopping with me, and it’s hard work! Any of you teens who have taken your younger siblings along when you’ve shopped for the family can attest to that. But I’m not sure the solution is “drugging” them with media. Not babies, and not adults. I, for one, would be pretty freaked out if our society as a whole lost the ability to navigate the subtle human interactions which make us real people. Ironically, the best example of this is—from the media!! In WALL-E, the depiction of a futuristic human population is not too far from what we see today, with all the people whizzing past each other focused only on the screens in front of them.

What Legacy Do You Want to Leave for Your Children?

Passover is coming up; a time when people get together with their families. What we do when we’re with our families reinforces cultural norms. Passover is a time when the culture of our people will be subtly shifted as we bring our sensitivities and mores to the arena of our families. What you’ve learned in your dorms and in your internships and in your workplaces and in your communities you’ll bring to your families, and your parents will learn how “the younger generation” is living from you. And your parents’ notions might shift slightly to accommodate you, and slowly, the cultural landscape will change. How it changes, in what ways it changes, is up to each of us.

If we gather with our families during the week of Passover and everyone is on their phones, watching things, texting, emailing, taking phone calls, that will become the new norm. Slowly it will infiltrate in and become normal. I’m certainly not saying phones are bad. Don’t get me wrong. I am saying that we should be acutely aware that however we interact with our phones is how our loved ones will slowly adapt, and our culture will evolve based on that.

If it becomes the norm for everyone to be on their phones at dinnertime, or at the seder, that will be the new cultural norm. That will become our new reality. The question we all have to ask ourselves is: do we want that? Whatever we each do contributes to a new culture, because culture is dynamic and always evolving.

We are all constantly creating and re-creating the atmosphere and the norms in our homes, our families, our circle of friends, our communities, and our wider culture. So, again, I ask: what legacy do you want to leave your descendants?

I went to a family reunion last month. It was incredible; there were about 70 people there, all descendants of two people. What was particularly amazing was how alike we all were, even though we had many different lifestyles and lifestyle choices. We all were much more similar than different, because there were certain defining values transmitted by those two people. Just two people heavily influenced seventy. And that’s how we all are—we are defining the culture around us. Each one of us, all the time.

As much as possible, in my opinion, turn off the devices and tune in.

Another thing I noticed at the reunion: some of the participants kept Shabbat, and the others there were respectful of that, which meant that from sundown Friday until an hour after sundown Saturday, basically all 70 people didn’t look at or answer or use their phones. I noticed an incredible difference in the quality of the human-to-human interactions on Shabbat versus on Saturday night. On Saturday night, when people were using their phones freely, they weren’t as present. Some people stepped out of the room to call others, some people were checking their email and not interacting with the people surrounding them, some people were looking things up on their phone for the benefit of the people surrounding them, but that interaction was not as connected as it had been on Shabbat when people were connecting person-to-person. It was actually fascinating to see the difference.

For myself, I have a rule. If I’m with a family member or a friend, (or during my client sessions), I don’t look at my phone. I keep it turned over or in my purse, and if it rings, I push the button on the side to stop the noise. I interact with my phone when I’m not supposed to be interacting with other people.

I very much enjoy connecting with my friends and with my family members via phone calls, texting, and emails—just not at the time when I’m physically present with other, real friends or family members.

Passover is coming. Some people will want to run “into” their phones to hide from family interactions that are stressful or toxic. I understand. I also think there is a lot to gain from truly being present with the human beings around us. There is a lot to learn from those people (both about how to be and about how not to be, sometimes), there is a lot to learn about how to interact (both with people we love, and with people we find difficult), and there is a tremendous amount of true contentedness which can come from authentic human connection. As much as possible, in my opinion, turn off the devices and tune in.