Time to hang up the iPhone and hang out

Sherry Lynn Evans, children's theater director, confiscates all phones before rehearsals.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

A rare event took place recently on a family trek across Los Angeles, when my wife and I noticed an unusual sound coming from the back seat.

Our daughter was talking to us.

It was like being in a time warp. Free, unsolicited conversation has pretty much become a thing of the past, but the girl was in a chatty mood. And then I realized why.

She didn’t have her smartphone.

There was no way for this 11-year-old social butterfly to text or Instagram. There was no music, no video and no connection to the hypnotic shower of unfiltered digital dust that coats the brain, glazes the eyes and renders captives mute.


So she spoke to her parents.

Go ahead and call me a horrible dad for letting her have the phone in the first place. I really don’t have much to say in my defense, and I definitely underestimated the addictive powers of an increasingly ubiquitous device that has transformed and often degraded how we relate to one another, adults included.

The Pew Research Center reported this month that nearly 75% of teenagers have access to digital devices and 24% of teenagers are plugged in “almost constantly.” I read through the study and talked about it on KNX- AM (1070) one morning, and Sherry Lynn Evans, who runs the Children’s Theatre Group of Southern California, sent me an email.

“About five years ago, I began seeing a strong disconnect,” she wrote. During breaks in rehearsals, she noticed her young actors texting friends with that annoying little thumb dance, even as they “talked” to each other (her quotes) without making eye contact.

Evans said creativity and imagination began taking a holiday in the San Fernando Valley productions. The students were no longer connecting on stage because they didn’t honestly connect off stage. Their performances were gradually more robotic, Evans said, and the quality of the plays declined.

“While rehearsing for a production, their attention span was minute ... and they had trouble focusing,” Evans said of the changes she saw over time, and actors seemed to have more trouble memorizing lines. “Their commitment to the production, their fellow actors and to themselves was becoming sporadic and nonchalant. And their acting was suffering terribly.”

Productions of “Cinderella” may never be what they once were. And although there are countless ways in which mobile devices have improved our lives, they clearly emit signals that zap the self-control and good judgment sectors of the brain. So you text while you drive, you constantly check to see if a meaningful tweet or email has arrived in the last three seconds and before long you’re the rude, self-involved blockhead you used to despise.

“Some of the things we do now with our devices are things that, only a few years ago, we would have found odd or disturbing,” Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, said in a recent TED talk.

Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” went on to say that we routinely and unapologetically text during school, meetings and family meals.

“And we even text at funerals.”

And if adults can’t control themselves, what chance do we have with kids?

Six years ago, I visited a charter high school in downtown Los Angeles, where teacher Shannon Meyer was conducting a digital overload experiment. She asked students to completely unplug for a week and write about the experience in journals. No TV, no smartphones, nothing. She was hoping they might read, listen to the wind rustling the leaves, talk to each other, or maybe even discover the wonders of solitary reflection.

“I AM GOING CRAZY!” one student wrote on Day 2 of the experiment.

I caught up with another student from that class Tuesday. Jesus Alonzo, now 22, is working for a medical supply company while taking a break from college.

Alonzo said that his 2009 digital fast definitely made him more aware of how much time he and others spend on their gadgets. So he now appreciates his uncle’s occasional rants about “everyone sitting on the couch looking at their screens and nobody’s looking at each other.”

He has even chided his mother for spending too much time on her phone instead of being available to talk about the events of the day, just as she used to chide him. And he said he doesn’t like it when the girl he’s dating feels compelled to check every text within a half-second of receiving it.

“I’m trying to have a conversation without a distraction, and I can see how technology is ruining social interaction,” Alonzo said.

And yet, he said he sleeps with his smartphone next to his pillow, using it as an alarm clock. And if he isn’t in school or at work, he estimates that he spends half his waking hours on the device, the bulk of it watching movies.

I should probably come clean and admit that I have my own bad smartphone habits, and, to repeat, they’re amazing devices that can be used in hundreds of useful and educational ways, or just to entertain ourselves.

I never would have dreamed 15 or 20 years ago that a single palm-held rectangle could be a camera, a stereo, a travel alarm, a Rolodex, a boarding pass, a global positioning system, a calculator, a book, a newspaper, a map, a phone, a game center, a mail service, a talking robot and on and on.

But that power is seductive and self-indulgence always seems to win out over self-discipline.

When I met with Evans at a coffee shop Tuesday morning so we could talk about her theater group face to face, rather than digitally, she said she has made her case to the parents of her students. But only about half seem as concerned as she is. She suspects it’s because many parents are enablers with their own digital addictions.

So Evans has a hard-and-fast rule for her student actors regarding their phones.

“They have to give them to me the minute they walk in,” she said.

Bravo to that. We should all find sponsors to help us stay clean for an hour or two each day.

You go first and let me know how it turns out.