In 2000, I bought my first mobile phone (a Sprint PCS Touchpoint 2200), the week I moved to Hawaii after graduating from college. I wanted to have a way to more easily contact landlords when finding a place to rent in Honolulu.

I loved having it. It made staying in touch with family and friends in the continental US so much easier.

Sprint PCS Touchpoint 2200

Sprint PCS Touchpoint 2200

At the time, having a cell phone was very much a novelty and more of a discretionary convenience. In the year 2000, only 28% of Americans owned a cell phone (compared to 95% now). Apple’s iPhone wouldn’t launch until seven years later, and the analog nature of mobile phones meant people only used them to make calls.

Introducing Technology Into Your Life Involves Tradeoffs

Man looking at phone around kids

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Whenever you bring a new technology into your life, you must consider how you can use it in a way that improves rather than detracts from your life. Even as a fresh college graduate in my early 20s, I remember committing to never have my ringer on or answer my phone when I was with anyone. During the 23 years since, aside from emergencies, I’ve held firmly to this rule.

I don’t consider myself “old,” but I’m certainly not young either. While I know most people have simply accepted and embraced the fact that smartphones are a part of our mainstream lives, I miss the days when people didn’t fill every idle minute of theirs looking at their phones. I can’t help but notice the sea of downward-pointing heads glued to glowing screens whenever I’m in public transit, an airport, or any line.

Girl on swing with phone

Don’t get me wrong. I completely understand, especially in work situations—including my meetings with clients, networking situations, and social situations—that people will have phones out, including me. Phones are a part of our daily lives now, and to not accept that feels futile.

I get it. I’m a techie myself. I love having a smartphone. I’m an early adopter and embracer of many new products. I own the latest iPhone, AirPods Pros, and MacBook Pro, all of which I use quite eagerly and happily in my personal or professional life nearly every single day.

Smartphone Addiction Is a Global Issue

Hipster using touch screen phone

Image by snowing on Freepik

Embarrassingly, I can’t imagine operating in my own life without my phone. I honestly never get through a day without picking it up multiple times.

“I can’t barely do anything without my cell phone and my GPS. I am a useless man.”
-Ethan Hawke as Clay in Leave the World Behind

However, I’ve recently become increasingly bothered by what many, including Evening Standard’s Richard Godwin have dubbed the global “mass addiction event” with nearly 7 billion people now using smartphones worldwide. Call me old-fashioned, but just like I don’t prefer trying to talk with a person if someone’s standing between us, I don’t prefer to speak with someone when a phone, either face-up or face-down, is situated between me and them.

Glued to phone

I’m not going to sit here and say the presence of your phone sitting between you and the person you’re with is absolutely having an obvious, detrimental effect on your relationship with them. However, according to much of the research done on the social impact of smartphone usage, it likely is.

Yes, the mere presence of a phone, even one on silent, flipped over face down, or put in a different part of the same room, has been shown to reduce cognitive capacityadversely affect human connections, and reduce marital satisfaction.

Smartphones Negatively Impact Relationships

Woman with man looking at phone

Photo by Budgeron Bach

In person, I still feel most connected with people when phones aren’t present in the room. I suspect they do too, even if they don’t consciously register it. I almost never have my phone out when my daughter’s with me, but I still feel different when my phone’s in my pocket, inside my bag, or even in the same room. I feel more present with her when we’re out, and I’ve forgotten my phone at home. I’ll be very sad the day she eventually unboxes her first phone. I fear our relationship will never be the same.

A few days ago, I saw this recent video of Simon Sinek explaining How Cell Phones Impact Our RelationshipsIf you’re someone who checks your phone first thing in the morning, take 2 minutes to watch this.

Simon Sinek putting smartphone away

“If you wake up in the morning, and you check your phone before you say good morning to the person sitting next to you, you probably have a problem.”
-Simon Sinek

Sinek explains how addicted most of us are to our phones. Unfortunately, I likely fall into this category myself, even though I don’t love to admit it.

If your phone is visible, face up OR face down, when you’re talking to someone, it’s likely having a detrimental impact on your conversation and relationship with that person, even if you don’t think it is. And for those who claim to have enough self-control to remain focused on the person you’re with, your phone may likely still be negatively affecting you, them, or your connection with each other in subtle but substantial ways.

“When you’re with someone, put your phone in a bag or on a shelf, out of sight. The idea is not that we hear the words they say, but that they feel heard.”
-Simon Sinek

You Must Choose to Limit Your Phone’s Presence

Father looking at daughter

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

I’ve always struggled with the idea of anything on a screen taking precedence over the people around you. But I feel like that’s where our society and relationships are inevitably headed these days unless we each take it upon ourselves to not only put our phones down when we’re around others but to completely put them away.

So for those of you who are about to head out on a much-needed family vacation or holiday, this is a long way of imploring you to put your phone away.

Obama phone snatch

I’m not saying don’t ever pick it up. I’m not saying to skip checking in when necessary. I’m just encouraging you to prioritize reconnecting with yourself or the people around you, especially when you have an idle moment. Do it for the sake of your relationships, your mental health, and your loved ones around you, whom I guarantee prefer you be fully present with them rather than momentarily present until you can grab your phone again.

Prioritize In-Person Connections

Yoda Put Phone DownI talk with a lot of clients and audiences who feel burned out and exhausted by the year-end scramble to wrap everything up before the holidays. They want to switch off. But the irony is that the idea of “switching off” these days involves switching on your phone. Yes, sometimes all you want to do is just zone out by using your phone.

I get it. I’ll admit that I’m also a “user.” I do my fair share of Instagram and TikTok doom-scrolling myself, which at least gives me the illusion of momentarily checking out. I of course enjoy Netflix (speaking of our dependency on technology, be sure to watch Leave the World Behind).

Everyone gets to just chill sometimes and mess around on their phones. No real harm in that, right?

Right.

Identify Some Sacred Phone-Free Occassions

Couple speaking

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas

You ultimately must decide which occasions you still consider sacred . . . and, therefore, deserve to be phone-free. For me, the moments that deserve to be phone-free are social occasions with people I love, family holidays, and any important conversation I’m having with someone. 

In 2024, I intend to continue limiting the presence of my phone in my life when I’m with others, at least when I’m not actively doing something utilitarian on it like setting reminders, checking messages, using maps, and, oh yeah, finding out the name of that music track using Shazam. I’m going to do everything I can to put my phone away whenever I can to immerse myself more fully in what’s happening around me, especially during these sacred occasions.

Instead, in my idle moments, I aspire to either read books, work on my photography, be more fully present with the people around me, or, well, just be idle. I hope you’ll do the same in the year ahead.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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