It would be tempting to date the beginnings of the addiction to the mid-1990s. That was when senior management and field personnel were issued Blackberry PDAs so we could all get in touch with any of the organization’s 7,000 employees whenever needed. According to theory, this was done so we could get Very Important Messages while sitting in less important meetings, or while at lunch, or between appointments away from the office.
In reality, though, it put us all on 24-hour call. When one receives upwards of 100 emails per day, in addition to phone calls, snail mail and routine office communications, the Blackberries gave us the chance to respond to emails at home after dinner. It soon turned out that when bouts of insomnia hit, some of us would get out of bed in the wee hours and look at the little screens. Many employees would go to the office in the morning to find emails from us that were time-stamped at 3 a.m.
Yes, that would look like the red flag. But the addiction probably started decades earlier.
Young people nowadays may have to use their imagination to picture a time when the landline phone was the only avenue of two-way electronic communication for the entire household. The parents and all their children had one line. So, when the phone rang, sometimes we would race to answer it, hoping the call was for us rather than some less deserving member of the family. That urge to answer the phone immediately carried over to my work life, and I almost always answered my office phone before the third ring if not before the second; in fact, I was shocked when I found coworkers sitting at their desks letting many of their calls roll over to voicemail, unanswered by the live human sitting right next to the phone. It seemed like sacrilege.
Fast-forward to the present. Even though young people today did not experience the telephone urgency of the 1960s or the email/Blackberry revolution of the 1990s, they clearly have gotten hooked on the instant gratification of same-time electronic communications. Now that our cell phones have the capability to connect us to email, text messages, Internet search engines, and more encrypted communications apps than one could ever possibly need, a casual observer does not have to look far to notice countless people paying more attention to their phone screens than their physical surroundings. It used to be that pedestrians would shout at errant drivers to quit texting and pay attention to the road. Nowadays, drivers are shouting the same message at pedestrians who blindly walk into traffic while staring at their phones.
And when a digital addict sees a news report about a natural disaster that wipes out a city’s water, electricity, and transit, the first thought is, “Oh, those poor people! They won’t be able to charge their phones.”
But, as with addictions to alcohol, drugs or other destructive behaviors, the addict often does not realize the extent of the problem until after “hitting bottom,” when it threatens family life or, in worst-case situations, the continuation of the family itself. One whose nose is buried in the phone screen ignores his or her spouse, ignores household routines, and can’t even follow the storyline of a TV show the family is watching together because of repeated checks on social media. Eventually, the addict must face the truth.
A 12-step program may become necessary, because it’s so much easier for a backslider to slip a peak at a phone screen than to get a drink or a fix. But there is hope.