Where Not to Use Your Phone

The kitchen, the bedroom, and other places should be off-limits to devices, says psychologist Sherry Turkle.

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

As MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle sees it, students are obsessed with perfection and invulnerability. That’s why they will email her their questions instead of coming to office hours.

“As I get famouser and famouser, I post more office hours, and the numbers [of students attending them] come down,” said Turkle, who researches and writes on peoples’ relationship to technology, during a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “What they say is basically, ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation, it takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you’re going to say.’” These students are trying to hide their vulnerabilities and imperfections behind screens, she said, and they have a “fantasy that at 2 in the morning I’m going to write them the perfect answer to the perfect question.”

It’s all a sign that we’ve become too dependent on our devices to get us through life, as Turkle sees it. She inveighed not only against email-loving Millennials but also against new moms who would rather sit at home on their phones than go meet each other at the playground.

She points to studies that show that having your phone on the table during mealtimes, even if it’s off, leads to reduced feelings of empathy. To truly turn the tide, Turkle said, there ought to be some no-phone times and places.

They are, uh, most of the times of the day and most places, including when you’re in:

  • The kitchen
  • The dining room
  • When you’re shopping for food, or “anything to do with eating or [where] the sensuous food preparation is happening”
  • Class: According to Turkle, most elite universities are banning phones and laptops in class because “you take better notes by hand.”
  • Your bedroom—“it’s bad for intimacy.”
  • Your children’s bedroom—“it’s bad for sleeping.”
  • The car, as driver—“you’ll kill yourself.”
  • The car, as passenger, unless you’re on a “50-hour road trip,” in which case maybe some solo movie time can be negotiated. But keep in mind, in-car chatter is “the conversations children remember for the rest of their lives.”
  • The playground
  • Your children’s swim meets and ball games—“you’ve already wasted your Saturday, put the phone down.”
  • When you’re picking your child up for school—it’s “heartbreaking” if you’re looking at your phone when your child wants your attention.

Strict? Yes. This is the price you pay for empathy. This “is not an anti-tech position,” she said. “It’s a pro-conversation position.”

With that, she was interrupted by someone’s iPhone alarm going off.