Stopping Cellphone Stress
> 1/6/2006 2:26:52 PM

There was a news story on today with the following headline: "Study: Cell phones tied to family tension."  The gist of the article was that a sociologist, Noelle Chesley, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has published some new research in The Journal of Marriage and Family that looks at the effects of cell phones on family life.  

Cell phones have been around for less than twenty years, yet the mark they've left on our society may be second only to the internet (which, coincidentally, you can now access from your cellular phone).  Saved by the Bell's Zack Morris introduced a generation to the cell phone in the early '90s, and so pervasive has been their effects that most people can hardly remember the time when they didn't have one.  

Sure, they're convenient.  Out on the town and want to see a movie?  You can dial the theater, or text the movie's name and your zip code to Google.  Lost on your way to meeting friends for coffee?  Directions are only a call away.  I mean, does anyone remember having to pick someone up at the airport before cell phones?  It was a nightmare.  

But the problem is, and we're seeing this in study's like the one conducted by Chesley, cell phones are almost too convenient.  Your phone puts you in voice, text and, in many cases, video contact with anyone and everyone in the world.  It's your personal portal to the information age, and with the convergence of technologies into smaller and more portable devices, soon there will be very little you won't be able to accomplish with your cell phone.  It's a double edged sword however: you are able to access the world, but the world can always access you.  

In Chesley's study, this manifests itself in the form of spillover.  Spillover is the term that has been applied to the effect of the compartments of your life losing their boundaries do to the connectedness of our time.  You might be watching your son's baseball game when your co-worker calls to inform you of a seemingly massive problem.  Or you might be plugging away at your desk when your daughter calls to tell you that she just saw a dead cat on the side of the road that looks like the family cat, but might not be, she's not sure, but she's really upset anyway.  Work and family, used to be easily discernable, marked by time and location, but technology is changing all that.

To be fair, these spillover communications are often the stuff that makes life interesting.  That being said, they can also be a source of stress.  Often times we compartmentalize our lives: scheduling work, family, exercise and alone time.  Even if we don't do this explicitly, each of us must organize our time to make each day more tolerable.  When we give the outside world 24/7 access to us through a cell phone, Blackberry, etc. we essentially give the outside world an open invitation to interrupt even the most carefully laid plans.

Stress and anxiety are the inevitable byproducts of this new world of communication.  How many times has that cell phone or PDA felt like an unbearable weight?  If you could just leave it on the night stand, just one day, maybe you could settle down a little.  I withstood the pressures to buy a cell phone for a long time.  I didn't like the idea of anyone being able to call me whenever they pleased.  I liked the anonymity of remaining unattached.  I could be in class, at work, surfing, climbing a mountain or telling jokes at Caroline's and no one would be any the wiser.  But I broke down, as we all do, in the fall of 2004, and while I still reminisce about the times before my cell phone, I can't imagine not having it. For every second that it makes me want to smash its worn silver keys all over the sidewalk, there's a minute of efficiency and convenience that I truly appreciate.

Reading the news story about cell phones causing tension; I couldn't help but be reminded of Adam Gopnik's brilliant commentary from The New Yorker’s September 30, 2002 issue.  In his piece, "Bumping into Mr. Ravioli", Gopnik examines how changing technology has affected his daughter's growth and development.  It seems that Olivia, Gopnik's daughter, has invented an invisible friend whom even she never sees.  Instead, she only ever speaks to Mr. Ravioli, as he is known, on her toy cell phone.  Mr. Ravioli it seems is always too busy to play with Olivia, and so Gopnik's daughter must settle for "bumping into Mr. Ravioli" on the street and grabbing coffee on the run (all in her head, of course).  

Gopnik postulates, after speaking with his developmental psychologist sister, that his daughter's invisible acquaintance, Mr. Ravioli, and the character’s inability to see her regularly might be a manifestation of the world in which she was being raised.  The essay moves into a discussion of modern communication and the manner in which it has led to incompleteness.

He writes:
Every device that has evolved from the telegram shares the same character. E-mails end with a suggestion for a phone call ("Anyway, let's meet and/ or talk soon"), faxes with a request for an e-mail, answering-machine messages with a request for a fax. All are devices of perpetually suspended communication. My wife recalls a moment last fall when she got a telephone message from a friend asking her to check her e-mail apropos a phone call she needed to make vis-a-vis a fax they had both received asking for more information about a bed they were thinking of buying from Ireland online and having sent to America by Federal Express-a grand slam of incomplete communication.

Cell phones are the prime example of this type of communication and they also highlight its psychological effects.  Text messages, voice mails, personalized rings and all other manners of cellular discourse are convenient but are also a powerful tool for keeping everyone else at arms length.  While we're interrupting one another with spillover, we're rarely if ever connecting on any deep level.  "Hope you're well" and "Let's catch up sometime" have to do in place of conversation.

All of this can easily begin to take its toll.  By the weekend, our increased communications leave us worn down.  Emails are piled in the inbox and voicemails of friends you won't have time to call have backed up for what seems an eternity.  It can be a little daunting, and as Chesley shows in her study, often it is the people that we're closest to that feel the backlash.  Luckily, a solution, even if it's only temporary, is very easily attained.  Simply power down and take a weekend off from technology.  Leave your phone at home and go to the park, or the museum, or the theater, or even better, just sit around your living room.  Amazingly, your heart will continue to beat and lungs draw air.  Monday might roll around kind of quick, but hopefully, your technology vacation will have allowed you to refresh and reboot to face the week.

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