Smartphones bring multitasking to a whole new level—and to whole new arenas. “People are in some moment but they are not in the moment,” says New York psychologist Stacey Rosenfeld. “Etiquette has somewhat been thrown out the window.”
Michael Sick, 56, of San Diego, admits to texting while talking. But his job requires him to be in constant contact with clients, and thanks to the iPhone, he’s not tied to a desk. He says he can be out and about, and if he has to take a second to respond to something, he can jump right back into the conversation once he’s done. Plus, it’s the only way he’d ever know what his kids were up to.
“I’ve got four kids. If I send them a text, they’ll respond 10 times quicker than they’ll respond to a voice mail,” Sick says. Another benefit: He can also log on to Facebook to see what his kids are doing through their posts.
For older adults like Sick, connection is often a job requirement. “Older people are trying to stay in the workforce longer, so I think smartphones create a feeling of security that they are not falling behind with technology,” says psychiatrist Scott Bea of the Cleveland Clinic.
Sneaking work into idle minutes can aid productivity, says Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Minutes: You Have More Time Than You Think. “But smartphones are a time suck if they distract you from projects that are actually far more important to you, like finishing a work project or even spending some quiet time thinking,” she says. “They’re good if you use them to send a quick note to your grandkids while waiting in line or look up ingredients in a recipe while running errands.”
But if you’re not paying attention to cars whizzing by, or are updating your Facebook status rather than paying attention to your conversation, you’re definitely not living in the moment. And that bothers psychologists.
Says Golden Gate University’s Yarrow, “You have to live a good part of your life fully engaged with your surroundings, and most particularly with other people, in order to feel the most alive.”
Smartphones can also mask insecurity about being alone. “People use their iPhone like a binky,” says Yarrow. “It’s like, ‘Nobody is paying attention to me, I can always interact with this thing.’ ” The downside of that, she says, is becoming less able to relate to people.
So the next time you’re sitting alone in a dentist’s office or waiting for a friend at a restaurant, don’t dive into the virtual world. Take in the surroundings. Engage the waiter in small talk. Breathe deeply.
“Connections are the fuel of life, the core component of happiness,” Yarrow says. “We need to be connected to other people, even if it’s just looking at the person that’s ringing up your groceries while she’s doing it, instead of staring at your iPhone. That’s meaningful.”
Cynthia Ramnarace writes about health and families from New York.