It was just another busy Saturday in our house. Although I try to keep my weekends as clear as possible of work so I can spend time with my family, I always have my phone with me.
This means that it can be hard to avoid seeing work e-mails on the weekend. And this particular Saturday morning, I was just checking an e-mail that had come through.
I was thinking about how to respond when I became aware of one of my sons repeatedly asking me about something.
E-mail completed, I quickly checked Facebook. He asked again, and in response I mumbled something like, “Err, yes, won’t be long.”
I had probably been sucked into Twitter when he asked again, this time more insistently, “Dad, can you answer me?”
This time I snapped back: “Look, can’t you see I am busy? Let me just finish this.”
He was quiet – and then replied evenly: “Dad, you’re a nicer person without your iPhone.”
He wasn’t lashing out in anger, and he wasn’t even particularly upset. He was just giving his opinion based on what he has observed over time.
But it was a killer line. And when I thought about it, I realized he was right.
I used to have a standard mobile phone, then I switched to a BlackBerry and now I have an iPhone. Each upgrade of hardware has expanded my connectivity with a wider range of people.
And particularly with Twitter, there is a never-ending flow of issues to be drawn into, arguments to join in and stories to read.
But widening your range of contacts and expanding your input of data often runs counter to deepening genuine human relationships.
We cannot be in two places at once – technology cannot multiply our humanity. And there is no way you can be fully present with those around you when you are trying to e-mail, Facebook or tweet others at the same time.
In pubs, restaurants, meetings and even church services, it is becoming normal to see people who are only half there while another half is somewhere out in cyberspace.
And in trains or buses, a huge number of people are immersed in their virtual own worlds that their smartphones give them.
While we are communicating ever more busily with our own network, we are in danger of being less and less present in the real world, less aware of what is happening around us and less open to encounters with real people who are around us.
While this might be a new cultural norm, my son’s comment gave me blunt feedback about what he thought of this in our family context. Like the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” his comment spoke truth I needed to hear.
It is a reminder to me of listening to the right voices.
Adults can easily assume that children don’t really have much to say to us – this is why children get patronized and fobbed off with distracted answers.
But I need to remember that anything my son is saying to me is always more important than anything I can read on Twitter.
Like many parents, we limit “screen time” for our children because we want them doing a range of things away from the TV and computer.
We think it’s good for their brains, for their creativity and their development not to be “glued to a screen” for too long.
Well, if this is true for children, then it is all the more true for adults. Perhaps we could all do with limiting our “screen time,” turning off the devices to ensure we are more fully present in the places where we actually are.
You never know, it could be virtually liberating.
Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. This column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. His Twitter feed is @jonkuhrt.