Ben Scheer First Person

Generation Numb: How Losing My Phone Exposed Me to the Pain of My Peers

This terrible void of which everyone stays pleasantly unobservant is the unofficial sickness of Gen Z.
Original illustration by Mr. Fish

By Ben Scheer / Original to ScheerPost

I hadn’t planned to give up my smartphone. After all, I was starting my sophomore year of college and I had not met a single adult who lives without one and definitely no other 19-year-old. If you haven’t noticed, it is part of the culture. A few weeks into the semester, I forgot my phone (a Google Pixel 2, for all you phone nerds) in the backseat of an Uber on my way back from shopping off campus. This would lead to an opening to consider a break from the phone and everything that comes with it.

I remember feeling frustrated at myself for being so absentminded and immediately rushed to track it down, anxiously calling the driver from a friend’s phone. While I listened to the open ringing on the line I began to think about this one technology’s central role in my life. 

That gateway to other worlds.

Over the next few days I continued to hope my phone would come back to me and also thought further into its role in my relationships. I felt how hindering it was in communicating with the people I love.  

How it had required me to be always ready to pluck it from my pocket, pull my focus and as a result, never be truly present. I saw in that reflection the possibility for healthier relationships, less dependent on constant digital connection. 

More free, less reliant.

Sure, there were a thousand things that would be made more challenging and tedious, but it would be worth it if I could be more present for my own life.

Days later, after I had given up hope of seeing it again, I used a friend’s phone to call my dad to tell him. 

“I will get you another one, what kind do you want?” was the first thing he said. 

“Actually I think I’m good,” I responded, to his surprise. “I can write you and my mom by email. If we want to talk, I can call you from my computer.” 

Quickly, I started to feel the change. My mood and habits became clearer; I felt happier, more grounded, less looming anxiety, feeling more alone and with myself, more conscious of my space and those in it.

Being alone led to more opportunities for reflection and boredom. I felt calmer, and my walking and pace of day actually slowed down. It is hard to describe how it changed the patterns in my brain but I could feel it readjusting, as it does if you spend a week in the woods or on a beach. One thing I felt was that my days were longer and more connected from one moment to the next. 

I also became more aware of the moods and feelings of others around me and was suddenly terrified to see how dependent my peers were on all their screens, and, looking back just a bit, how consumed I, too, had been.

Something else bubbled up from my unconscious: My expectations of college differed from what I was seeing. Between talking to older relatives and seeing college life on TV and in the movies, I was expecting a . . . BIT MORE JOY! Young souls, free minds, positive energy, community. I was seeking some bright spark in the people around me, yet all too often what I saw was dull, void, distractible, unthinking, unfeeling people enveloped in the world of their screens instead of being in community and conversing with the people around them.

Yes, that is harsh. It is also what I see. 

So much lost human potential.

I want something or someone to blame, but maybe what I should really be blaming is myself for expecting something else. The truth is, though, I feel right in blaming the phones. 

It has been over a year since I gave up my smartphone, but I remember vividly when looking at my phone for hours a day seemed normal to me. I was content to stare at the screen for hours, doing the same thing: Watching mildly entertaining videos or mashing game buttons, swiping on Tinder, scrolling on IG, surfing memes and YouTube videos. In many ways, it’s a drug too good to give up, seemingly a harmless drug, but no. We have opened Pandora’s box of marvels and there is no way to close it now.

We are continually wanting what we do not yet have, an innate motivation amplified and rerouted by capitalism’s hyperdrive marketing engines. A good fix for this constant yearning, or any discomfort is to drown it out with distractions. Feeling an uncontrollable emotion? Existential itch? Low-grade anxiety? No problem: Try scrolling on the social of your choice for a bit, trust me, it takes the edge off. 

Trauma or poverty, pain or loneliness, all manner of worry, we have a cure! Or at least the emotional response can be staved off long enough for you to find the next thing to click.

This terrible void of which  everyone stays pleasantly unobservant is a part of me as well, the unofficial sickness of my generation. (COVID-19 will be the official one, memorialized in our virtual yearbooks.) This hole, this pit, that is created from not knowing one’s self, not trusting one’s self, or not allowing feelings. So distracted that these insecurities that we act on every day are a mystery. That you cannot see how fundamentally OK everything actually is because you have music constantly in your ear and a fear that, in silence, your own thoughts would be too scary. The sickening thought that your true feelings for someone were no more than an act of comfort-seeking desperation and that “love” is a lifesaver from yourself.  

I can’t blame anyone though. The distractions surround us, they surround the people we are with. The collective unfeeling is so great, so vast, it cracked me open, actually made me cry often once I allowed myself to experience it. I felt like I was losing my footing in the world in which I had grown up. Disconnected from my past and unsure of where we were going. 

(Side note: If you haven’t yet watched The Social Dilemma, go do that, it’s worth it.)

Walking into a small college class to see no one looking at each other or chatting, the blank vacant stares. The soft glow. It felt … confusing? Why were so many interesting young people ignoring one another? What was a classroom like before these tools were available and allowed everywhere? Why were the screens so celebrated?

Then my confusion grew, and from it rage and pain. These emotions danced together, fueled me and crushed me. I saw, for the first time, the real power that the phones held. Yes, a power we had given them, but a power nonetheless. The power to keep people who were 500 miles apart tethered to one another, or keep people sitting right next to each other brutally apart. 

Who can I blame? It is just the world I have been born into, and the technology- and profit-driven changes are coming faster every year. We live in the future with brain equivalents in our pockets and a web that contains all of our collective knowledge but reveals the worst of what we are and so little of the love we contain and of which we are capable. 

Is the internet a good idea? Are phones good for humans? These are not questions we have answered or even barely thought to ask in the mainstream of our culture. Of course they are, what else could they be? Progress! Faster communication! More knowledge! More speed! More fun! We will all be more efficient and entertained, and from that we will live better lives. 

NO! Stop, slow down. Please. These gadgets, these everywhere-anytime screens, are ruining the minds of the people who have been mesmerized since they were only little children. 

To clarify: not ruining, in that people are made stupid (although it definitely does not help develop our attention span), but rather ruining our emotional capacity and spiritual selves. And these limits fetter us as we are already so strained by the pain we are able to see through our little windows; we don’t have a moment to feel, to feel our own pain, or that of our friends. 

Or, for that matter, the pain of the world, or the impact of our constant consumption, or where all this STUFF comes from and where it ends up, or the pain of our history and centuries of exploitation of other humans and nature from which all this wealth originally was derived. 

Being human is objectively great. We can use language and words to describe how we feel. We can feel the sun on our face and take in the taste of a thousand foods, dance to every song. Feel great pain and great happiness. Yet, all the time I see this discomfort, unrest and fear in my most distracted friends. It is coming from the disconnection from what they are feeling, a disconnection from being. 

This is the worst theft of modern-day, first-world life: the theft of being present. 

The phones and distractions and speed create this disconnection from the simple fact that you are actually OK, better then OK — you are alive and can feel and that is a gift to cherish. 

Worse than the days of sadness are the days of not feeling anything. Some people are depressed not because anything is wrong but because they are numb to their feelings, too distracted and avoidant to feel them; avoidant, and scared of what might happen if they let themselves feel.

Try this: Really study those you love, let their face become new to you, again, and become fascinated in the way they move. Feel the wonder of being with another human.

After more than a year without a smartphone, I am more hopeful than I was in those first few months. Not to say that everything is all right, far from it. Here in the United States our technology has allowed for multiple realities to coexist alongside one another and I don’t see a clear path out of that problem. Distraction and narrow self-interest prevent us from seeing and grappling with the apocalyptic future climate change can bring in a much shorter time frame than even most globally aware people are willing to accept.

However, I do know that change is a constant and I am healed by looking past my own lifetime and by all the simple beauties of life and living. In the end, these technologies do NOT define us. We can work together to change how we coexist.


Postscript: For those who are interested in also letting go of your smartphone, I would recommend downgrading to a flip-phone or phone of a similar level. I now walk around the world with a thick, red brick through which I can communicate with my work and family in case of emergencies. 

Ben Scheer
Ben Scheer

Ben Scheer, 20, is active with the Sunrise Movement and the struggle for labor justice at UC Santa Cruz. He promises never to attack you with specific examples from the text.

This article is free to repost as is. Copyright Ben Scheer 2020.

18 comments

  1. Ben. What insight and clear thinking. And courage to face the “void”. But it really isn’t a void is it? It’s where real meaning resides. Great piece – thank you.

  2. I am an older person with an ordinary small phone perfectly adequate for calls, SMS messages and have never used a smartphone and have no wish to do so. I also avoid apple, amazon, google, facebook etc plus ads on the internet (adblock helps) and only found I was forced to sign up to google in order to see any Youtube videos. I prefer some private life and have plenty of outdoor, fresh air activities!!! To see so many people living on screens all the time, and hear their opinions,all identical , makes me sad. Congratulations to Ben!!!

  3. “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

    Generation Z, like any of those educated in the US post-1980. is the product of “education reform” that set public education on the road to total privatization. The direct result was that the desire to learn and interest in reading to expand one’s knowledge have both been stifled. Or totally smothered, in some cases. Education is now a job, at which young people work more hours than their parents do at actual paying jobs, including dealing with massive amounts of homework a decade-plus of studies have shown to be ineffective for the learning process.

    I’m not going to blame “screens”, because from where I sit that’s a symptom, not the disease or even a factor in causing the disease. It just makes sure the disease is never cured.

  4. I hate to tell you, Ben, but when I went back to college in the 19990s, well before smartphones, my perception of classmates was exactly the same as you describe all these years later. It’s not the phones; it’s the “society,” or complete lack of one. Neoliberal doctrine and practice has impressed a fully psychopathic mindset into the lived reality of nearly all Americans and increasingly more Europeans.

    Psychopathy is the engine of social annihilation and it’s claimed all of reality and morality for itself via the pretexts of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, both doctrines standing as repudiations of centuries of accumulated experience and wisdom, and installing themselves as “truths” that are actually criminal and immoral doctrines like fascism and organized crime are criminal and immoral.

    Ben, you’ve never tasted the United States as a democratic republic or even as a society with a social contract. We’re the subjects and victims of an oligarchic, plutocratic corporatocracy, and whether we’re self-conscious of that fact or not, it crushes our spirit and destroys our connections. It impoverishes us and makes us violent and robotic and indifferent. We’re delusional because the horror of what the US actually is and has always been is almost infinitely painful to contain within oneself.

    I’m sorry we’ve never been able to accept the fragility of our own thought processes as primarily emotional struggles revolving around feeling safe and accepted. We think we’re rational but we’re not even close to that. As a Sunrise Movement member, you know how the public can hate and attempt to silence what it needs most of all. Keep going and keep building alliances with those who share your urgency and devotion. It’s all we have, I think: each other.

  5. Great stuff, thanks. It seems Nicholas Carr had this nailed down in his 2010 book, “The Shallows,” re-released with some additions this year. I recommend it.

    There are other issues related to the possible intrinsic addictive value of a medium that presents instant and pervasive contrast to a brain with sensory neural circuitry that fundamentally makes it a contrast detector. I’ve written a short bit about this aspect at:
    https://vinlopresti.medium.com/the-brains-online-contrast-hook-5d031faf2789

    Hang in there, you’ve inspired me. I’m pretty old, but ready to make the leap backward to a flip phone.

  6. THANK you for writing this.
    [I gave up using a mobile phone about two years ago.]

    There is also this aspect to it: the utter harm to Earth caused by EMFs from mobile phones to towers, or satellites. If we could see them with out eyes, we’d be shocked.

  7. Ben, you’re enough to give an old man hope. To see contemplation and context still matter among the young is the only hope we really have. For being a catalyst of such contextual awareness, I can only offer a heart of gratitude. May others of all generations follow your path.

  8. Dear Ben,
    I found your essay very poignant and thoughtful, and
    thank you for sharing your deep experience. I am 88 and
    your description of entering a classroom of atomized
    students took me back to my university experience when,
    arriving early for the class, the students were abuzz with chatting and laughter, sometimes rueful confessions of
    not having read the text, until the teacher entered the
    room followed by a respectful hush and rustle of papers.

  9. Postman, Boorstin, Lasch, Sennet all observed the inner-directed narcissism in the 1960’s-70’s in USA—far worse today as observed by Sarah konrath, Jean Twenge–Twenge/Campbell (The Narcissistic Epidemic)…Post, a technological determinist—‘The End of Education, Technopoly, Amusing Ourselves to Death, wrote, “amerikans do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. the problem with amerikans is not Orwellian, it is huxleyan: amerikans love their oppression—a liberal…the same position is taken by marxists–Horkheimer/Adorno (The Dialectic of enlightenment), post Marxist, Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Modernity/Individualized Society) and Alan Bloom (the closing of the amerikan Mind)…described as “a conservative ” by the syncretic marxian social historian Christopher Lasch who wrote in his famous, ‘The Culture of Narcissism’: “in America the citizen has been transformed into a client, the worker into a consumer”

    1. Oh, I don’t know…I think we’ve managed to achieve a unique balance of Orwellian and Huxleyan facets in our American society.
      Maybe even throw some Wells in there for good measure.

    1. Reality hasn’t been “upended,” its been made to seem irrelevant and thus possible to be ignored. For a time.

  10. Wonderful essay, Ben. Thank you for writing something so positive and hopeful.

    Far from what many try to claim, technology (especially smart phones) has made us more isolated and distant from each other. It seems we are becoming prisoners of technology.

    “This is the worst theft of modern-day, first-world life: the theft of being present.”

    On the money.

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