By Jen Ehrlich
This week in my class “Concepts of Modernity: Philosophical Foundations,” the professor spoke of his growing concern with how stressful students find it to be without their cellphones. He reported how, for another class, he would ask his students to not use their phones for one day a quarter and was surprised that one of the main reasons this distressed them was the fear of not being there for their friends. He was confused as to what calamity these undergraduates expected to befall their friends in the 24 hours they were unreachable. And, in theory, I understand his bafflement.
But I think his confusion is illustrative of the older generations’ lack of comprehension regarding modern-day friendships. We text each other sometimes 50 times a day, hold multiple conversations across apps, send memes that express our every thought, hope, wish and fear. If a clever comment pops into our heads and we can’t share it, did it ever happen? A modern quandary indeed. In the times before COVID-19, these connections were important, a way to keep each other close as we went about our separate days, constantly in each other’s lives until our next meal together or movie night or Coupa coffee. It was important but perhaps not vital.
Times have changed. Since we were all sent home last spring, our phones, or laptops, have become our lifeline. The only connection to friends spread across the country. The source of FaceTimes and shared TikToks, Zoom movie nights and group chats. And, for myself, these connections have kept me sane, or sane-ish.
When I dropped my phone this summer, shattering its beautiful face into an unusable spider web of glass and metal, it took a week to have it fixed. That week was the most unmoored I had been since the pandemic began. Perhaps partially because I am addicted, but also because if I wasn’t tied to my computer, I had no connection to the people who have made my life at Stanford so special. To the people I count on for advice and wisdom, laughs and light. It was a very long week. When I got my phone back I almost kissed it — and might have — had our new reality not made me a complete and utter germaphobe.
My friends and my phone are my lifeline — connecting me to my youth and life outside of my parent’s house. They bring me more happiness and joy than I can ever explain to them. The problem, however, with putting so much of myself — ourselves — into our virtual connections, into chats and likes, retweets and comments, is that when they go badly, it can be devastating.
I posted something political on Instagram and the angry, factually incorrect and hurtful response I received from a relative almost brought me to tears. Coming out of the shadow of the most chaotic presidential debate hopefully in history, the negative emotional volley made a tiny crack in my heart. It shook me much more deeply than it had any right to.
Similarly, when someone I asked to give me space found a way around the literal blocks I had put up, I was undone. I felt violated and bewildered. I had asked for a break in contact that, when refused, led me to block them. And yet, they maneuvered their way around those blocks to send their charged emotions at me. And again, I crumbled in a way that shocked me. I am a young woman living and dating in the digital age; someone ignoring my requests to be left alone is not a new experience. So, as I lay awake the entire night staring at my ceiling, heart racing, I wondered why I was so affected this time.
The conclusion I came to was simple: In a year when everything is different, when a new catastrophe seems to hit every week, when no parent or professor, doctor or politician, can say with any real certainty what the future holds on an individual, national or global level, we are all children again. Everything is new. Everything is wondrous or terrifying. Everything is heightened. Emotions are stronger, feelings are deeper and our needs, aches, wants and fears have expanded beyond their rightful scale.
And the result is that I am even more elated to get a cute TikTok of a British man petting kittens. The weekly Zoom movie nights I hold with my study abroad friends are sacred. And when someone sends digital negativity my way, I am crushed. It is a return to childhood wonder and teenage dooms. When the world is new and frightening and changing and retreating all at once, connections are all we have to hold on to.
Our friends — and since they are far away and distanced, our phones — are all we have with which to create a world. It is a fragile world, prone to greater highs and deeper lows than our normal world, perhaps with everything dialed up to Technicolor or neon, but it is the world we have. So as we continue in it, I am trying to face it less as my lifeline to reality than as a part of my reality. One I can hold dear when it brings happiness and push away when it brings stress.
I am under no illusions that I can make my professor proud and put my phone away for good, or really even for a day, but I’m trying to get better at it. To wean myself from it as I would from any addiction, because my friends are there for me whether I text them my every thought or not, they love me even if I don’t reply to their messages right away and I hope they know how much I treasure them even if I have to take a digital detox. It isn’t a perfect system or even a good one, but until it is safe to venture into real reality, my goal is to make peace with this one. To find a way to take the good and leave the bad. To make peace with my phone at what feels like, but probably isn’t, the end of the world.
Contact Jen Ehrlich at jene91 ‘at’ stanford.edu