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Cassandra M. Bellantoni Headshot

Did the BlackBerry Eat My Girlfriends?

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I'm the first to love technology when it brings us together, promoting understanding, lifting the level of our collective consciousness and helping us realize the best of our humanity. But in this era of instant communication, I'm still finding contact doesn't always equal connection.

Technology in the suburbs seems to create barriers to close relationships. It's time to address all the gadgets for what they are... a distraction.

What started this post idea was a visit to my daughter's home in DC for the holidays. She's a married, successful political journalist. We were enjoying a lovely dinner with a bunch of her friends, a group of notable DC journalists, when I noticed that although all Blackberries and iPhones were on the table, nobody was texting or making calls during dinner, even though these people make their living by having a quick response to endless contact with the world. Everyone was fully engaged in conversation and it was at that moment that I realized how much I miss interesting people being fully present and enjoying conversation without constant interruptions. It simply doesn't happen in the suburbs these days.

I live in a Silicon Valley suburb and after a couple of years of working from home I have found myself with a lot of friends around my age, that are stay-at-home-moms with little kids and tweens. Because my daughter's grown up, I fall into sort of a grandmother role, dolling out words of wisdom about patience and how the problems their having with their kids are normal and temporary, etc. A few years ago, I really felt like I knew what I was talking about, but now with an 11-year old getting an iPhone for a birthday gift, a 13-year old getting caught sending naked pictures to boys, and their crazed moms barreling down the roads in their SUVs while checking email on their BlackBerries, this is truly a different world. And from what I've seen lately, I thank my lucky stars I didn't have to raise my kid with all of this technology in the way.

There was a time when it was really fun to go to lunch with the girls from the block or meet at a movie a little early to catch up on everything without interruptions from the kids, the husband or work. It was a great time to connect, as we women need to do. But with constant contact from the family, it just doesn't happen anymore with my friends in the Burbs, and maybe this is one of the reasons these women seem so incredibly unsatisfied with their lives.

Don't get me wrong. These are women that have been supportive friends to me through some of my most difficult challenges and they are kind, generous, beautiful people that I treasure and miss. Where are they these days? They seem to be frequently MIA even while sitting across the same table. I think their kids are wondering where they are too.

The last year or two, these ladies have acquired the newest version of a smart phone and they are constantly on them. The truth is these women can't sit through a movie, a 10-minute car ride, a lunch, a dinner, a walk around the block or a trip to the store, without being on their phones, talking or texting nearly the entire time.

Coming from the business world, I learned a long time ago to politely turn my phone off during movies, lunches and meetings, so I'm shocked to find this behavior so prevalent and now I feel like I'm the person being rude by expecting these busy women's attention. Apparently when disruptions come from family, the same rules don't apply. If they shut off the phones for a second, the kids or their husbands will blow a gasket, which I have actually witnessed on several occasions when the women were unavailable for a rare 10 minutes. Thankfully, when my daughter was little, technology allowed for some breaks of constant contact.

I'm not talking about emergencies here either. The constant text messages are things like:
  • Why won't Dad let me watch Britney Spears?
  • Can I make the cookies we bought?
  • How do I cook the frozen pizza?
  • When will you be home? (repeated every 10 minutes)
  • I need this, I want that.
  • I want to use the laptop to get on iTunes but Jennifer won't get off MySpace,
  • Dad fell asleep on the couch and now I'm scared... Come home now!
  • Dad is a jerk.
  • Kami is cheating at Wii Bowling.
  • Why aren't you here?
  • Why can't I be there?

These interruptions seem ridiculous to me, but are taken very seriously, judging by the moms' frantic, constant text replies and usually ending in a stressed out call or two that is horrible to witness. The fact that they entertain this at all is another story.

From my observation over time and with many women, this constant contact via technology isn't making them feel more happy, secure or on top of things. In fact, it seems to be reinforcing the idea that everything falls apart at home if they go to lunch or a movie or do anything for themselves. And it certainly doesn't make hanging out with them much fun either.

With so much pressure, who could blame them for a technological intervention like slapping the headphones on the kids, turning on a Disney DVD in the backseat and handing over a Happy Meal for a moment or two of time to themselves, or to catch up with friends on the phone while driving. It's understandable but is becoming a serious problem as they are also frantically checking email, FaceBook, etc., while driving. According to David Strayer on a recent Oprah show, this makes them 8 times more dangerous than a drunk driver.

The kids want to be like all the other kids, so they want a Wii, a cell phone, an iPod, a Pocket Pogo, a video camera, a laptop, a DVR in their room, their own iTunes account, a MySpace page, and in some weird cases an iDog. None of this stuff satisfies them for long and when they get their phones, they end up texting mom as much as they text friends. And again from my own observation, I believe these kids really want mom and dad's undivided attention, which is rare these days. They desperately hope that the constant contact will someday give them the connection and security they crave What else could explain it? Did you want to talk to your parents constantly when you were a kid? I didn't.

When talking to some moms about writing this, I heard a lot of complaints about all the craziness of texting and gadgets, but nobody seems to be concerned about a lack of emotional connection. I heard things like "my kid can't spell except in text language" or "my kid doesn't know how to have a normal phone conversation," or " I turned off the parental controls because it was slowing me down, then I caught my kid looking at porn." But I suspect there is some underlying insecurity about the lack of family emotional connections or the Wii TV advertisements wouldn't be all about "reconnecting" with your family through playing Wii, right? Judging from sales, Wii knows their marketing.

I found it interesting Oprah's first show of 2010 challenged a family to turn off their electronics for 7 days and they actually needed Peter Walsh to move in with them to do that. Oprah, a genius of women's popular cultural, uncovered that when the gadgets were turned off, and real communication began, the family found it was on shaky ground emotionally. The adults had a fear their marriage was falling apart, the kids felt unnoticed and lonely, but the family had never discussed any of this until the switches flipped to OFF. I suspect this is the case with many families.

Maybe we need to implement a weekly day of rest from electronics in the suburbs? Could we turn off all electronics one day per week and spend quality time with each other? I truly hope so because this is spreading. At least these moms had time in their lives before the electronic appendages for real relationships. Last Saturday I saw two young teenage girls walking down the street together, but they were both on their phones talking with other people instead of to each other. This struck me as strange and sad. I love technology but I truly hope face-to-face connection doesn't become a lost art.

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