There’s an ominous warning at my children’s aquatic centre in Gisborne, where they go for swimming lessons once a week.
Two photographs displayed side by side on a sign below the lifeguard’s station show a young child swimming happily underwater and next to the child a photo of a mobile phone.
The message under the gleefully swimming child reads “MAKE SURE YOU FOCUS ON THIS”, and under the mobile phone “NOT THIS”.
Ironically, many of the intended recipients of this warning – parents who bring their children to swim at the centre – pay little attention to it because they’re so busy tapping away on their mobile devices.
It can take less than a minute for a child to drown – about how long it takes to read and reply to a text message or open a couple of apps.
I don’t of course take a high and mighty position on this worrying evolutionary behaviour – were it not for the fact that I swim with my kids when they have their lessons, I too might be at risk of doing the very same thing.
Indeed, up until relatively recently, I would say I was as addicted to my smartphone as anyone else.
Not only my wife, but my kids would notice my compulsion with constantly checking my phone for messages, or news, or fresh tweets.
In the 24 hour news cycle, amid the constant updates on social media as people share the minutiae of their lives or spout opinions on every possible topic of the day, the smartphone is the gift that keeps on giving.
Or should I say curse?
What kind of a society have we created whereby two people, in a seemingly loving relationship, can sit across from one another in a restaurant and not say a single word to each other, but instead have their heads glued to a little screen, their fingers typing away.
How we cling to our phones like safety blankets to shake off the boredom of living.
It’s the first thing anyone seems to do when they having nothing to do: they pull out their smartphone and start tapping away. I see it when I wait for my train in the mornings, and on the one hour train journey into work.
I see people scrolling through Facebook feeds whilst waiting at traffic lights and often incredibly, while they are driving their cars as they glance down into their laps.
One can only wonder how many people walk into traffic, trip over objects, fall down hills or end up in all sorts of embarrassing accidents because they were distracted by their phones.
It must be in the millions every day. According to statistics portal Statista, the number of smartphone users around the world has risen to 2.5 billion out of a global population of 7.7 billion (almost one in three people) and will hit 2.9 billion by 2020.
I remember well what happened in 2013 to a tourist visiting Melbourne who plunged off a pier into the icy waters of Port Phillip Bay whilst looking at Facebook on her phone. She was rescued by police, still clutching that very device.
I also found this viral video clip of a guy in downtown Oklahoma who stood and was bitten by a snake he stepped on, which he failed to notice – whilst texting on his phone.
There are many more examples you can find online.
No doubt such an embarrassing fate awaited me until, one day, whilst with my kids in the park, my attention constantly darting to my phone, an idea popped into my head from the cosmos.
The idea was this: I would abandon my iPhone and buy one of those old-style flip phones they market to older people with the big buttons (or I’d just buy one on eBay), and then the only things I would use my phone for – or could use it for -would be to make and receive phone calls and send text messages.
It would be like going back to a more simpler time, without the distraction of constant updates, when I could focus on the here and now, be with my family in body and mind, not just an empty vessel.
I almost leapt out of the metaphorical bath screaming “Eureka” at my brilliant plan – before reality set in.
What about the app I used to check the train timetable? What about the personal hotspot I used to connect to the internet to work whilst on the train?
And what – shock, gasp, horror – would I do without Google Maps to navigate my way to children’s parties, restaurants, meetings?
Turns out life would actually be a lot harder without my smartphone. And so I abandoned the idea.
But then, my wife – who has a knack for coming up with good ideas I seem incapable of considering – suggested I delete all the apps I didn’t need and keep only those that served a purpose.
And that’s exactly what I did. I deleted all my social media apps – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. All my news apps – the ABC, BBC, Guardian – and all the other digital distractions I could do without.
That was about a month ago. I’ve survived the terminal event.
It hasn’t stopped me from still reaching for my phone for no reason other than to check for some new information, but with nothing much on their anymore, I tend to just put it away and the habit appears to be dissipating.
Am I smelling the proverbial roses a bit more now? Yes I’d say so. Do I notice things more like the country scenery that passes by me on the train? Yes. I do. And am I more present, actually listening to what my wife and kids have to say and actually responding in a meaningful way. I think so.
So comrades, join the revolution and delete a few apps
Forget about what silly thought bubble someone is spouting on their Twitter feed about a topic they no nothing about, and rejoin the present world of the here and now a bit more. It’s surprisingly nice.