Wish you were here ... not here on the cellphone

Back in the '70s, many of us devoted ourselves to "being in the moment" and "living in the present." To achieve this end, we meditated, we did yoga, we sought a simpler life. And it felt good. The idea was that whatever it is that we are doing right now is as important as anything past or future.

Our life has meaning and is rewarding to the extent that we can focus on each task we perform as we are performing it, each thought as we are thinking it, each emotion as we are feeling it. Ram Dass presented this way of being in his 1971 book "Be Here Now." Although most of my friends and I were ambitious, the book helped us become more internally motivated, and life seemed quieter and richer.

A trip to the beach with my teenage sons, Ted and Reed, and eight of their friends at the start of this summer showed me just how much the world has changed.

We were celebrating summer freedom from school with s'mores made over our traditional bonfire fueled by their graded papers and notebooks. The kids rode waves for hours, skim-boarded on the beach, played football, and hiked the rock cliffs to watch the sunset. Another mom and I organized a cookout just after dark. What could be better?

Well, apparently something could be. Our trip was constantly punctuated by outgoing cellphone calls. At all times, at least one of the 10 boys was on his cellphone.

I was curious what the draw was. As I listened from our end, I learned that the boys were calling friends elsewhere just to see "what's happening." They were checking in on who was where and what other kids were doing.

Even if a trip to the beach was fun, some cute girl was someplace else. Some other guys might be having a party. There might be some plan for tomorrow they were missing out on.

It occurred to me that this was the antithesis of "Be Here Now." Cellphones were effectively taking kids out of the moment. Rather than just enjoying a trip to the beach, the boys were constantly monitoring what other things - present and future - they could be doing, what other people they could be with. Just having a cellphone in their pocket fostered the consciousness that "there might be something out there I'm missing. Better check."

This cellphone mania promotes superficial social contacts. "Just checking in" is really just checking out. While others are enjoying a football game on the beach, someone is cellphoning about where another group will be tomorrow. While the rest of the boys talk around the bonfire, one or two are cellphoning to find out who's at another party.

The appearance of obsessive busyness seems ironically linked to ultimate emptiness. By "reaching out and touching somebody," kids avoid the intensity of relating to the somebodies they are with right now.

Many parents purchase cellphones to give themselves a sense of security that they can contact their kids wherever they are. But these cellphones in every kid's pocket have taken on a life of their own.

The potential to talk to any friend any time has created a new level of opportunity for checking out of the here-and-now. It's like getting a $20 bill when you're a kid. A universe of options sometimes leads us to forget the joy of what's already in our hands.

Some of my sons' friends did not bring cellphones to the beach. I think they were the lucky ones. They knew that there would be other adventures tomorrow, but for now, this was as good as it gets.

For the rest of this season, I'm going to have Ted and Reed leave their cellphones at home. I want their memories of the summer of '04 to be filled with what they actually did, not just a playback of their cellphone conversations.

Kathy Pezdek is a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University.

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