Why Smartphones Are Terrible for a Little Bit of Zoning Out

“I’m just going to zone out on my phone for a little bit.” I’ve said that many times, assuming that staring at my phone would somehow be restorative or relaxing. I hear it quote often from others as well.

When I felt tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, I typically needed to take a break for a bit of zoning out and restoration. In the past I may have turned to a book, a run, or to even a darkened room for a little bit of rest. Then I started turning to my smartphone.

It felt a bit like giving salt water to someone dying of thirst or dumping a bag of lollypops on a dinner plate.

I noticed this tendency to zone out on my phone the most while parenting. When my kids wore me down with complaining, arguing, or crying, I began to zone out on my phone or tablet to give myself a break.

This is a common solution among parents and many adults I know. Smartphones have really useful and fun apps, from games, to articles, to friends on social media. A bit of fun on social media may feel really great in a moment of exhaustion or distraction.

The problem with using a smartphone for distraction is that phones and apps are designed to be as irresistible as possible. When we’re tired and worn down, our willpower is especially vulnerable, making it hard to set limits on our time or to respond to troubling news in healthy ways.

If Facebook alone aims to hook us for 50 minutes every day, and if the engineers who designed autoplay on YouTube or the infinite scrolling on Twitter and Instagram can’t regulate their own usage, we should beware using these apps for aimless diversion when we are most worn down.

Considering that thousands of engineers and psychologists have teamed up to make these networks addicting and consuming, it is ideal to only use them with intention and limitation.

Perhaps it’s most helpful to ask why we believe that using our phones will actually be restorative or helpful in times of stress or exhaustion. Do they actually help? Perhaps certain apps can, but for the most part social media also exposes us to disturbing news stories, divisive reactions, and the latest controversies. A game may be fun, but is it allowing our minds to process the day and to unwind what may be bothering us?

Perhaps it will be more helpful to plant a garden, to start a craft project like woodworking or knitting,  to keep a writing or art journal, or to go for a walk or a run when we feel most worn down.

The more space we give our minds to process our days, the better prepared we’ll be for the highs and lows of each day. That will also help alleviate some of the swirling thoughts that make it challenging to pray.

If I turn to my phone for a distraction or an escape, I try to ask myself what I’m running from and whether there is a better way to restore my mind or spirit. In my experience, turning to my phone as an escape has often left me feeling more trapped than when I began.

We See You

Early Morning on Playground

Our toddler, E, is running up the steps and zipping down the playground’s small slide on his stomach. Our newborn, B, is strapped to my chest, a heater pack on a hot fall day wiggling from time to time, threatening to wake up before I have time to run home for his bottle. We need to head home soon.

I hear her before I see her.

When I do see her, I can hardly take my eyes off her.

Maybe five or six years old, she’s running behind her father who is five paces ahead and engrossed in a call on his smart phone. He’s muscular, wearing a perfectly fitted shirt and what I imagine to be designer shorts. It’s as if he’s walked out of a catalogue and onto a playground where a little girl started chasing him.

He only acknowledges her when her shouts are audible for everyone within a few blocks.

“What? What’s wrong?” he demands.

If he’d spent ten second listening to her shouts, he would have known.

“I want you to stay right here!” the girl says as she points at a spot next to the playground. “Don’t walk away while you talk on the phone. Not like last time. You can’t leave me here and walk all the way down the bike trail. I’m afraid of being alone.”

He nods and says, “Yeah.” With that he turns away from her and resumes his phone call. He may as well be a mile away.

Resigned, she stomps over to the swings and glides back and forth on her stomach, staring down at the mulch. A few other kids her age are wrapping up a game of tag and catch her eye as they charge past her.

I see her loneliness and heartache, and I feel the challenge of my position as a man. I don’t want to be that creeper guy on the playground who goes over and talks to random little girls, you know? But her loneliness and perhaps even fear strikes a place deep within me from the past. And I know that pain, and pray out of that pain that God would send someone to see her, to pay attention, and to let her know how wonderful she is.

I want to scream across the playground from where I stand with my two boys, “We see you! We’re here! You can join us! You’re always welcome to play with us. We’ll listen! We won’t turn away or walk away! You’re beautiful and kind and completely right. You should never have to be alone.”

But then B starts to squirm, and E gets that mad dog look in his eyes that portends both hunger and exhaustion converging, and I have to let my boys know that I see them. I have to go, luring E back to the stroller with promises of peanut butter sandwiches and crackers.

The other kids and their families hop onto their bikes or retreat to their cars. It’s as if we’d all agreed to leave once this girl set foot on the playground.

The man continues talking on his phone. E babbles to me about crackers and this sheep bath toy that I know we’ve lost during the walk. B makes a “sqwicking” noise as he settles into his pacifier.

The girl rocks on the swing, back and forth, back forth—alone.