Cell phones as the new cigarette

Our electronic devices are a dazzling display of communicative power. They beep, sing, text, send, schedule and alert. They connect us and give us an identity. And they are so handy.

But watching a woman leave a conference lecture to go outside the room, and stand in an isolated corner to take a call on her iPhone led me to wonder whether cell phones were the new cigarette. While comparing the old “lung dart” with the electronic “ear candy” of a cell phone has obvious limits, the similarities can be striking. Cell phones may be less benign than they first appear.

First of all, some people are attracted to cell phones as a cool accessory. Just as the white stick hanging from your lips used to make you look fashionably rebellious, a cell phone pressed against your ear offers some people a sense of importance, a touch of social status regardless of what triviality the phone call may entail. For teenagers, it can signal independence, even if parents use it to keep track of them. For people who always need something to do with their hands, cell phones can replace the butt as something to fidget with your digits. It calms the nerves, a magic amulet of communicative diversion.

Cell phones, like smokes, can be addictive. When set to vibrate, the cell phone buzz may have a similar effect as nicotine, as a small dose of dopamine released in the brain accompanies the soft ping! that promises text message delight. Teens in my church have testified “I can’t live without my phone,” “I feel naked when I’ve misplaced it” and “It’s the first thing I check every morning.” When cell phones become extensions of our body from which we cannot part, we are one step closer to the mythical cyborg.

Such close attachment suggests another similarity with the devil’s toothpick: they are socially rude. Most cell phone users cannot help but be distracted by their device, and few things are more annoying than users who interrupt conversation with people present to them in order to talk – and often chat loudly – with people far away from them. Its like blowing smoke in your face. Marshall McLuhan said decades ago, “There is nothing further from the spirit of the new technology than ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’”

Much worse than impoliteness is the cell phone’s threat to human life. We know the ashes from butts have caused horrendous fires, and some countries are considering banning smoking while driving because of the the hot ashes thrown outside, the second-hand smoke affecting other passengers and just the distraction of the habit. Similarly, texting while driving has become a serious social issue, and the famous director Werner Herzog has created an online documentary called “From One Second to the Next” which will move you to tears with its roadside tragedies. In the film he documents a story about a young man who texted “I love you” to his wife just before he hit and killed an Amish family in their buggy. The triviality of our texting can have disastrous consequences.

Some may be surprised to read that, like the cancer stick, cell phones may be hazardous to your health. The research remains contested at this time, but we know human tissues can absorb the energy from radio waves (a form of radiation) that cell phones emit. The National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov) is just one website that offers detailed summaries of the diverse research on cell phones and cancer.

We must not underestimate how vested interests operate when enormous profits are at stake. Like in the cigarette wars, huge multi-national corporations in the cell phone industry have plenty of resources at their disposal for influencing the public through marketing and for resisting any outside regulation. Whether smoking a pack a day or making monthly cell phone payments, a lot of money electronically transfers from the the already poor to the increasingly filthy rich.

The opposite of incarnation
What about our kids? Can I suggest we not give our children these devices unless absolutely necessary, and then only for a season? You are not depriving them by refusing to buy them a monthly plan and the accompanying distraction device. It rarely functions as an educational tool; more likely, it’s a diversion from the world around them. Moreover, studies show that use of electronic devices can re-wire the brain for short-term attention disorders (see The Shallows by Nicolas Carr). To put it bluntly, our pre-teens need a cell phone like they need a cigarette.

If the incarnation is our model – being embodied, present, engaged in our environment for the common good – then being wired can be a discarnating experience that transports us to other places, other times. There is a growing intuition that cell phones have already become the social liability that we know smoking has been for decades. Government bodies may step in with warning labels or other initiatives, but we certainly need to better self-regulate our use. We are caught in the ‘net, and we need to MIRL: “meet in real life.” Let children master face-to-face conversation first. Let them play board games and run outside in the yard to breathe in deep the life God has gifted them. Like smoking, an antidote to our electronic tethers may be nothing less than more fresh air.

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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