Smartphones can sap real-life experiences

Most of us are guilty.

We have relinquished the responsibility of using our flesh-and blood memory to the digital memory inside our smartphones. Videoing beats remembering. A replay of life inside a mind generates no likes or retweets, and can’t go viral, or entertain us or our friends or people we kind of know on our social media list. A device built in China or Hungary retains special moments better than human gray matter, right?

Clearly, a child’s first Christmas program or the climb to a mountain’s summit are best experienced while viewed through the screen of our smartphone, recording every song and step. Right? It seems so.

An average of 136,000 photos per minute get posted on Facebook, and 95 million photos and videos are posted on Instagram daily, according to Social Pilot.

Pope Francis shook up the modern reflex to capture everything on cellphone video recently. The pope instructed people gathered for his weekly general audience at Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City, including priests and bishops, to put down their cellphones during the worship earlier this month.

“This is a bad thing,” Francis told the audience, according to the translation reported by the Washington Post. “It makes me very sad when I celebrate Mass here in the Square or in the Basilica and I see many cellphones raised.” He reminded the gathering that priests’ invocation is to “lift up your hearts,” not “lift up your cellphones to take a photo.”

Can any of us in day-today life, whether among the Catholic faithful or not, resist the compelling urge to lift up our cellphones first, and experience an uplifted heart (maybe the Facebook emoji kind) later? Again, I share in the guilt, part of a legion of humanity.

Ninety-five percent of Americans own a cellphone, and 77 percent are smartphone users, according to Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey. Maybe the five percent who lack a cellphone, and the 23 percent with flip phones are the smart ones.

The pope’s message that smartphones can become a distraction, even an impediment, to a fully immersive experience matches research published earlier this year in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research through the University of Chicago. In a nutshell, our smartphones distract us even when they’re shoved into a back pocket, sitting next to a coffee cup on your desk or tucked into a coat hanging by the door.

The researchers called it “brain drain,” a term typically used to describe the exodus of new college graduates from their home state or city. In the case of smartphone distractions, the exodus applies to our ability to solve problems and complete tasks at peak levels. Through two experiments, the study concluded that “even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention — as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones — the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.”

It happens as “automatic attention” is reserved for our exciting smartphones, and performance on other tasks suffers. Our memory is less magnetic, attention span shorter, work abilities less precise.

And that’s just with the phone sitting idly on a table.

Cellphone technology is hard to knock. It lets us watch the first steps of a grandchild living a thousand miles away. Or the pope’s message at Saint Peter’s Square. But when such things are happening right in front of us, are we able to let the words sink in, with closed eyes, or to feel the toddler collapse excitedly into our arms after those steps?

I’ve reminded myself of the difference since reading the pope’s comments. I rethought a few moments in my own life that unfolded without me capturing them on a smartphone. I remember the brain-numbing volume of The Who concert in ‘82, the ice-cold temperature of a stream my wife and I walked through in the Smoky Mountains, the stench of a pricey cheese platter we sampled in Chicago, the sting of my sons’ fastballs while playing catch in the front yard, and the sight of my daughter outrunning me to the mailbox on a Sunday morning jog.

Thanks, Pope Francis. Message received. Smartphones have a purpose, but we should use them, and our time, wisely.

Mark Bennett wrote this for the Tribune-Star. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.