There is a suddenly fashionable New Year’s resolution: to reduce the time we spend on our smartphones. It has been given a push by one of the very people responsible for creating what has become an increasingly pervasive addiction.
In an interview with the Financial Times at the weekend, the co-founder of
Spiegel declared that he was limiting his seven-year-old stepson’s smartphone use to ’90 minutes a week’.
But it is a sadly mistaken idea that it’s only children who have become ‘smombies’. We must all, by now, have seen families at cafes or pub gardens, the parents glued to their smartphones and therefore ignoring their children.
There is a suddenly fashionable New Year’s resolution: to reduce the time we spend on our smartphones
I confess it was not because of any special attentiveness to my own children that until very recently I did not use a smartphone. I just didn’t feel the need.
For years, I had a device which had no internet facility. Designed for the very old and technophobic, with huge easy-to-see keys, it just operated as a phone.
Oh, and it also had a built-in torch, to help its owners find the front door keyhole when returning in the dark.
I loved it. But my wife said it was ridiculous that I didn’t have a smartphone. Eventually, I relented and got one … but, subversively, I used it in exactly the same way as the ‘real’ phone I had reluctantly given up. I didn’t connect it to the internet.
And I asked the network provider to block it from receiving (and indeed transmitting) texts.
But this had become increasingly perplexing to my two daughters, as well as my wife.
Texting was their principal mode of communication with family members when apart. Also, they wanted to create a family group on WhatsApp, in which I was expected to participate. Again, finally, I had to yield.
And so last month, my elder daughter — a technical whiz who would get 100 per cent in computer studies at school and went on at university to design her own programs for statistical analysis — came round and worked her magic on my phone.
Among other things, she installed the apps for Twitter and Uber — and told me that I had finally left the 19th century.
So how has it been, these first tremulous steps into the world my children inhabit? Rather wonderful, actually.
I should explain that my 23-year-old younger daughter has Down’s syndrome, and her speech — especially over the phone — can be hard to understand.
But she is an avid and accurate texter (with the help of spell-check) and we have had some hilarious long-distance texting exchanges: also some similarly amusing encounters via the family WhatsApp group.
It is a sadly mistaken idea that it’s only children who have become ‘smombies’
The most pleasing aspect — which had simply not occurred to me beforehand — is that these conversations can remain on my phone in perpetuity, so I can scroll back and remind myself about them, whenever I want.
There have also been embarrassments as I clumsily fumbled my way into this brave new world (new to me, that is).
Over Christmas, I sent a text meant for one of my daughters to a distinguished gentleman with whom my usual conversation is about Westminster politics. I fear he was disconcerted to get a text from me beginning ‘How are you, my darling little goose?’ I got a text back consisting solely of two question marks.
My smartphone (a Samsung Note 8) has a little pen and the ability to translate writing into text.
This has also led to misunderstandings — partly because my handwriting is atrocious.
One such message to a daughter which I sent on the family WhatsApp came out as: ‘I’m so glad I can’t be with you.’ I think ‘sad’ rather than ‘glad’ would have caused less consternation at the other end.
Then there is Twitter, which my wife had long wanted me to join, pointing out, irrefutably: ‘You are a journalist and there is so much material available on it which would be professionally most helpful for you.’
She was quite right (as always). Though she perhaps hadn’t bargained for the hold Twitter’s other, less intellectual, attractions would soon have over me.
In short, I have rapidly become addicted to this app on my now fully-employed smartphone. The flow of minute-by-minute pithy comments on matters which interest me — from chess to China, from cricket to crime (and those are just the Cs) — is mesmerising.
Countless millions have known this for years: I am simply wondering how I ever managed to get through a day without staring at this stream of commentary (not to mention film of people and animals doing unintentionally comical things).
And it is this, in fact, that has caused my wife to have second thoughts. She now finds tiresome my staring at the Twitter feed on my smartphone and asks that there should be a weekend moratorium.
My response is that I write my column for this newspaper on Sunday, and the information I am gleaning is — exactly as she had forecast — most useful for these articles. What, she says, even those films of puppies falling over, which you now send almost every day to the children?
She has a point. But who asked me to join the smartphone world in the first place?
These green zealots are the modern scrooges
Of all the accounts of Christmases ruined by the Gatwick drone incident, the most affecting came from 16-year-old Tivka Dillner.
She described, in a letter to the Guardian, how her grandfather’s dying wish was that his five grandchildren — who’d never before been on a plane — should be able to enjoy a Christmas trip to Lapland
‘My grandma kept the trip a secret from us until December 17, when she broke the news: we would be getting a plane early in the morning, riding on a sleigh, meeting Father Christmas and his elves, petting reindeer and so much more in one beautiful day. We were ecstatic.’
Tivka went on to describe the ‘heartbreak’ when the flight was cancelled after the emergency shutdown of Gatwick’s runway: ‘I’ve never heard my grandma cry so much — she is devastated.’
Jan Johnson (centre) had paid for a Lapland trip for her grandchildren – from left, Tori, 12, Teddy, 10, Tirah, eight, Tivka, 16, and Tivon, 14 – but their hopes were dashed
But Tivka’s letter did not arouse the slightest sympathy on the part of Guardian readers — or at least not those whose letters were published by the paper last Saturday.
Diana Heeks of Llanrhystud, Ceredigion, wrote in to say: ‘The last thing I would do is book any flight for my grandchildren … I applaud the people who flew drones over Gatwick, perhaps checking by a tiny amount the advance of global warming.’
And Laura Clout of Ivy Hatch, Kent, declared the damage caused to the planet by such holiday flights made her wonder ‘why to even bother continuing.
Our only real choice comes down to whether we boot our fellow travellers into the void, or help them find a firmer grip — until perhaps this ruined planet shifts and rolls and belches its sorry self free of the whole damned lot of us.’
These Guardian readers would have been superb material for Charles Dickens, the writer we most associate with the joy of an extravagant Christmas for families whose day-to-day life is penurious.
With names like Heeks and Clout they already sound like his invented characters. They are Scrooges for our age — although the misanthropy and righteous pessimism of such people is beyond satire.