05/10/2012 08:07 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

BlackBalled! (A Bedroom Tale)

It's a fact: Excessive presence of a vibrating device in your bedroom, night after night, can damage your relationship. Yet some two-thirds of us (90 percent of those young, energetic types between ages 19 and 29) share our bedrooms with such a toy. You may find, to save the relationship, the offending object needs to be banished to some far-flung location, where its beady presence cannot intrude on your most intimate hours.

I'm talking, of course, about your BlackBerry, or any other flavor of smartphone you keep at the bedside, lurking between the sheets, or hidden guiltily under a book. Our devices have come to dominate our waking hours. While life may have been easier when apple and blackberry were just fruits of the forest, it's now incumbent upon us to prevent them also becoming the rotten fruits of Morpheus. Here's what happened to me.

I confess to packing both BlackBerry and iPhone. I'm not proud of this, merely a necessity. (It's hard to type secretly under the table at meetings without the tactile feedback of a BB keyboard... and then there's the ever-free Messenger, friend to the thrifty Scot within me. But, on the other hand, how do I use apps like Instagram and Angry Birds on a BlackBerry?) I try not to take them out of my pocket together and look like a show off (or a thief). I did this inadvertently the other day and was accused by a friend of being telephonically polyamorous. Surely just biPhone-curious?

People will go to the ends of the earth to connect. Literally. Fortunately, most of the ramifications of the tech-enabled exponential increases in this regard are good for the individual and society: more socializing, more awareness, deomcratization. But there is also a dark side: Most manifest in the constant sense of accessibility -- and loss of focus, inner peace, tranquility.

For instance, I've realized I now get a sudden sense of heightened relaxation the moment a plane takes off. It's the only good thing about flying, which I'd like ideally to avoid altogether, and started only in the past few years. A sense of calm transcends flight-fear or the most anarchic circumstances (a row of screaming babies, a European school trip flinging BA's best leek and potato mash at one another with bendy plastic forks, before boisterously photographing the mayhem on smartphones clutched in muddied paws). The reason?

Once I power down after one too many warning looks from the inflight team -- sheepishly, with as many mixed feelings as a recovering heroin addict setting down the needle (and in notable company, following Alec Baldwin's recent expulsion from a flight following a refusal to switch off), everything changes.

The realization that I can't send emails comes like an enlightenment. I can't receive incoming ones, with news good, bad or "actionable." I will even get a certain stay of execution before senders of emails will conclude that I'm being rude, or worse, inefficient, after no reply within the hour. This latter concession is only granted of course so long as they know I was literally beyond the reach of radio waves wedged into a 600-miles-an-hour aluminium sausage 12 miles up.

After a brief, panicky moment wondering how to occupy oneself with no device to hand, I look around, then spot a device with the original flexible battery-less touch screens -- known in the old days as pages -- and dive into the Daily Mail (in case my mother's reading this in horror, I did also read the FT as an IQ-offset). I was struck to find -- on one page -- two bizarre and grave stories of smartphone-induced distraction having afflicted the most respected professionals, to add to countless cases of dangerous driving caused by messaging. In the first story, the pilot of an Australian airliner approaching Singapore was so distracted by a text that he didn't perform the necessary checks -- the co-pilot luckily realized the wheels weren't down, only 700 feet up. The landing was aborted and no one was hurt this time, though an investigation's underway. In the second, a family doctor was allegedly so distracted checking emails in consultations that he gave two elderly patients 10 times the morphine dose.

If these professionals, knowing full well the need of 100 percent focus, can be so distracted, what hope is there for the rest of us? Sherry Turkle of MIT, in her excellent recent TED talk on technology and risks of de-humanization, confided that many people now tell her about the important new skill they're learning, of being able to text while holding eye contact with the person in front of them: "hard apparently, but not impossible." Device obsession is frequently described as full-blown addiction, since it exhibits most of the symptoms. The attention we give our devices is so doting, we could benefit from applying it to our human relationships. And when devices cause such distraction while we're awake and alert, imagine what happens when we're in bed and off-guard.

Holding a thought in mind while falling asleep, one can wake up with it, hours later. There's presumably some evolutionary benefit in this ability -- remembering the suspiciously lion-shaped bush you saw outside the cave at dusk, say, and investigate (preferably with a long stick) in the morning. However, if the thought's related to work, and stressful, it can cause havoc careering round one's head, bumping into dreams and reflections, like the bull in the proverbial china shop.

This is what I was doing, night after night. It's an easy excuse to make, "I need a BlackBerry on the bedside table -- well, I don't have an alarm clock! No, of course I don't have time to go and buy one, I'm way too busy... emailing." Hmm. The real reason is to get in that last-minute inbox check at the 11th hour (or more like 2 a.m., once I've finished performing post-mortems on "essential" mail). By the time I'd drifted off I'd inevitably missed the chance to hug my girlfriend as she fell asleep, having traded that for squinting fanatically at a tiny screen with its unnatural, circadian rhythm-disrupting glow.

It's been shown in a recent study on more than 4,000 young adults in BMC Public Health that in prospective analysis, overuse of smartphones was associated with stress and sleep disturbances for women, and feelings of "high accessibility" relating to communications devices was associated with stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression for both men and women.

My overuse in the bedroom started to impact my relationship with my girlfriend. As the blinking red beacon continued to bid me goodnight and welcomed me good morning, we argued more. It came to a head one day when (it sounds crazy) I dreamt I thought I'd cheated on her -- not with a particular person, but hazy memories of the BlackBerry itself. Whether it represented a conduit to actual dreamed infidelity or was personified in its own right, I couldn't tell. Either way, it was enough. As if I'd had a mistress hidden too long in the wardrobe, I knew it was time to change. So like solving any challenge (well, as soon as I realized I wouldn't have the resolve to fix it outright), I decided to approach it step by step. The first move was BlackBerry banishment at weekends. Then in the week. After a period of withdrawal I made (debatable) headway by switching to iPhone only.

Not revolutionary, you may well say. Headway though: Firstly, it doesn't have a seductive-but-treacherous red light. Second, it has apps to wake when my sleep pattern says it's time. But most importantly, my iPhone doesn't have work email; it's my social phone for friends and family only. A device representing downtime and fun is infinitely less problematic than one representing deal flow and HR. (Though one may have worries about the voyeuristic presence of a phone with AI capability in the room... a friend who'd exhausted iPhone's Siri's knowledge on factual subject matter, joked that at last he'd sought to get an answer as to how good he was in bed. Housed at the bedside, Siri at last may know!)

As for me, I'm moving back in time toward an alarm clock with which to share my bedroom. Hopefully a true single-function and woefully non-smart one, possibly made of wood and without so much as a screen or a sim card. Imagine.

For more by Dr. Charles Roberts, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.