By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
Are our smartphones destroying the fabric of the American family? Think about that question. How many young families with children are allowing their elementary school children to have smartphones with little or no restrictions?
In April, I was at a celebration with a family with three children from the Midwest; all were in junior high school. Dad is a successful attorney and Mom is a tenured schoolteacher. Grandparents and an aunt were also there to celebrate the eighth-grade daughter’s confirmation. By traditional definition, they are a strong, intact family.
After grace was said, I was amazed at what followed. These children are bright and articulate. They are not inhibited to share their opinions. After a few minutes of banter, which I initiated, they immediately became obsessed with their smartphones. The only communication for the remainder of the meal was shared among the adults present.
As I flew back home after the celebratory dinner, I could not help but be distracted by my cellphone observation. I decided I would be more attentive of young people and how and when they use their smartphones. I must admit I was taken back by my observation.
On Tuesdays, I take an early morning train to New York City. I teach in the graduate school of social work at Fordham University. I was deafened by the silence. Based on observation, most of the passengers were on their smartphones, their tablets and/or their laptops. It was the rare row of seats in this crowded train where people were actually engaged in conversation!
So I decided to look further into the smartphone issue. I already knew from my experience that smartphones were becoming a problem in college classes, so much so that I had to develop a specific policy on the use of cellphones in my classes.
However, I wanted to know more. When did you get your first smartphone? How many hours a day do you spend on it? Are you permitted to have a cellphone at family dinner? Would you rather text than speak to someone directly or leave a voicemail?
I was definitely concerned by their responses. I sought input from my classes in a four-year school and a community college. All who responded were students in the classes I taught at these respective schools. For the most part, their answers were the same.
Most students said they received their first smartphone by late elementary school, early junior high school — that is fifth or sixth grade. As small children, their use of their smartphone was limited by bedtime. However, by high school most students admitted they were using their smartphones from 10 to 15 hours a day, and in some cases, even more!
Most admitted that they would rather text or leave a voice message instead of talking. The only split was with those who had family dinners where cellphones were prohibited; however, those not having a family meal said it was not an issue. They were equally divided on how many had a family dinner and how many had not had a family dinner since early elementary school.
These observations could not be seen objectively as conclusive since the survey is very limited in number. However, it does offer us a lot of food for thought. It helps to explain for me as a teacher why college students’ writing skills have deteriorated over the years and their critical thinking skills are almost nonexistent. The human connection seems to be lost. The next generation seems more grounded in one-dimensional nonhuman connections rather than face-to-face human interaction.
For the sake of our future, we need to go back to simpler times where people were more important than social media posts and human touch with respect and dignity more valuable than a social platform. We must reclaim the fabric of our American family life before it is too late!
P.S. I still write hand-written notes and letters! LOL!
Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.