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#MLGV | When You Sleep With Your Smartphone Under Your Pillow

By Tochukwu Onyeagolu

Behind our big family house, there is another small building, the type Nigerians call boy’s quarters. It is a four room apartment with provisions for our house boy, family kitchen, parking store and a spare room for visitors.  I live in the big family house. My room is at the rear end of the building, its glass window directly opposite that of the spare room for visitors. For three nights now, I have been observing a weak blue light, maintaining a ghoulish presence on the glass window of that spare room for visitors. This nightly light event coincided with the visit of Nneoma, my little niece. The neon apparition started the first night she slept in that room. I had no idea what that light meant or where it came from. But when I did find out, I was filled with a most troubling concern for Nneoma.

On the day Nneoma was to visit, I was not around when she arrived. My mother (Nneoma’s grandmother) was the one that welcomed her. When I returned around 11:00 in the night, mother told me Nneoma came, was weak and had gone to bed. So I didn’t see her that night. By 6:30am the next day I was set for work but decided to check on her before leaving. Gently, I tapped at the door and opened the visitor’s room. Nneoma was wide awake and busy with her smartphone. She lifted her face and greeted me. She did not seem pleased when she saw me. She did not run up to grab me in her usual warm embrace. Rather, she barely took notice of me, and made a weak gesture at regarding me. When I inquired about her parents and siblings, her brow was crested with obvious displeasure as she mumbled few incoherent remarks, all the while clinging madly to her phone. She felt insecure and probably saw my presence as intrusive. I left her that morning without giving much thought to her strange attitude.

Every night I would wonder about that mystery light. Yet in that brief encounter with Nneoma, I had all the needed dots to trace the light. Now it would take me a whole week long to understand the full weight of the spell at work in her life. It was actually after one week that I decided I had had enough. So one night I left my room, went to that very window and stood. It was 2:05 in the morning. Of course, the light was there, blue and weak. On observing it closely, I made out the source. It was a smartphone, fully lit, with busy human fingers swiping away on its screen. The busy fingers belong to Nneoma. “So this is it? So Nneoma is awake this late into the night just to operate her smartphone?” I asked rhetorically.

For the rest of that night, I lay on my bed with many thoughts pacing through my mind. I thought of youths and social media. I thought of their addiction to phones and other electronic devices. I thought of the changing values in our world. I thought of the kind of things that can keep today’s youths awake up to 2:00am in the midnight. Longfellow spoke of what kept men and women awake at night in their own time. He spoke of heights and greatness, of toiling and industry. He spoke of dreams and ambitions, of scholarships and excellence. Longfellow was a man of high culture. He was the one that told us: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” When I saw Nneoma awake as late as 2:00 am, I knew it was for the wrong reasons. I knew she was not kept awake by the kind of things that kept men and women awake in the time of Longfellow. Ambition. Greatness. Excellence. Industry. Scholarship. Dreams. None of these was the reason for her vigil. Shakespeare spoke of another kind of vigil. He spoke of Macbeth that murdered sleep. Macbeth could not sleep because of his spurious quests, base desires and trivial pursuits. Could any of these have kept Nneoma awake? I fear this being the case. As these thoughts lingered in my mind, the weak blue light was still shining. At this point heavens knew I could bear it no more. So I decided to confront Nneoma right away.

It was then 3:30am. I left my room for the second time that night. This time I did not stand at the window. I made straight for the door, knocked and requested to have a word with her at once. I told her: “I have no problem with you having or using a smartphone. It is good to have one. However, my problem is your addiction to it.” At the mention of ‘addiction’, Nneoma got confused. She did not understand the meaning. But she sensed it must be something quite bad. Fortunately I had just read an article by Jean M. Twenge in The Atlantic. The article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” Immediately, I googled it on my smartphone and read out, in her hearing, the following paragraph: “In July 2014, a 13-year-old girl in North Texas woke to the smell of something burning. Her phone had overheated and melted into sheets. Why, I wondered, would anyone sleep with her phone beside her in bed? It’s not as though you can surf the web while you’re sleeping. And who could slumber deeply inches from a buzzing phone? Curious I asked my undergraduate students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep. Their answers were a profile in obsession. Nearly all slept with their phone, putting it under their pillow, on the mattress, or at the very least within arm’s reach of the bed. They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning. Their phone was the last thing they saw when they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone.” “This is the meaning of addiction.” I told Nneoma finally. By then her eyes had become sensitive, thoughtful and sober. And so I continued. “Oh yes! Addiction is your problem. The amount of time you are spending on social media makes me worry about your future.”

Philip Yancey spoke of feeling sorry for the teenagers who check their phones on average 2000 times a day. This is exactly how I feel towards Nneoma. Nneoma has no culture. She has no time for reading or writing. She has no time set aside for developing any skill or a time made sacred for learning any talent. She can pick up her smartphone by 7 or 8 in the morning, 12 in the afternoon, 4 in the evening, 10 at night or 12 in the midnight. There is no method at all. Hers is a life lived anyhow, a life that simply revolves around her smartphone. If she is not chatting on WhatsApp or Facebook, she will be on her Instagram or Snapchat page checking the likes on her latest post. She has two power banks that keep her smartphone powered all day round.

How we spend our time matter. Our lifespan is measured not just in time but also on how the time is spent. Here is a possible timeline for any person as worked out by William Barclay: “When we work out how we spend time, the results can be startling. Take the time we spend eating. Let’s say we spend 10 minutes at breakfast, 20 minutes at our midday meal, and 30 minutes at supper; that is 60 minutes or 1 hour per day, 7 hours a week. Put it in another way; this means that we spend one twenty-fourth part of our time eating; that is to say that, every year, we spend the equivalent of about 15 days doing nothing but eat; or to take the long view, it means that in a life of 70 years we will have spent 3 years eating. Let’s say that we sleep for 8 hours every night; 8 hours is one third of the day; one third of our time is spent asleep. That is to say, in a life of 70 years we shall have spent almost 24 years asleep.” If this timeline were to belong to Nneoma, what will her life add up to when the time she spends on social media is brought to the picture?

A quote from Will Durant says: “We are what we continually do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Nneoma is still 14. If she continues the way she is doing, what will her life add up to when she turns 30? No great man or woman ever lived like that. I have read The Audacity of Hope by Barak Obama, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, There was a Country by Chinua Achebe, The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie and so many other human stories. Their path to fame and honour was a path marked by discipline, sacrifice, industry, and most importantly, culture. I read from Philip Yancey about the culture of certain people. According to him:

  • Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.
  • Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.
  • Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.
  • Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.
  • Arthur Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.

Our age is losing this kind of culture. Recently, Leonard Sax, an American parent, raised a concern about the death of creativity among American-born kids. There is a highly coveted prize for children in America, The Science Talent Search. Some refer to it as The Junior Nobel Prize. Sax is worried that, for long now, American-born kids have been under-represented among the ranks of the innovative. The report he cited revealed that in 2016, 83% of the forty finalists for the Science Talent Search prize were the children of immigrants. Sax traces the cause to a new parental trend that allows American children to spend all their time on Instagram or Snapchat, video game and pornography. In concluding his remarks, Sax made an unsettling prediction on how such children may likely end up. He said: “That fifteen-year-old boy seemed quite content spending his free time just as he pleased. But eighteen years later, at age 33, he has a growing sense that life should be about more than video games and masturbation.”

I don’t want my niece or any other young person to end up like that. So in rounding up my long discussion with Nneoma, I gave her the following pieces of advice. I told her: “Limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Don’t sleep with your smartphone under your pillow. The simplest way to know if you are addicted to phone is when your phone is the last thing you handled before going to bed at night and the first thing you handle when you wake up in the morning. To avoid this, you must not use your phone for alarm clock. Buy a good alarm clock from market. Don’t support your smartphone battery with power bank. It can make you spend longer time than is necessary with your smartphone. And this is not good for your future. Trust me. I have been there. Phone promises enough fun but little life. Limit yourself to whatever little battery life available in your smartphone. Give more time to more important things than your phone. Be a person of high culture and not a person of trivial pursuits. Have time for reading, writing, developing your talents and learning new skills. Let it be a time sacred to you, an hour or two every day. You must never use it for social media activities. You can even have a day set aside every week. You can call it ‘no Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat day.’ This is how to fight your addiction to smartphone. Be careful about what keeps you awake late at night. You can read your book at night, learn a musical instrument. But don’t keep awake late into the night just to chat.  A friend told me recently that he can’t do without chatting with friends every day. This is the truest sign of addiction. You must not give your smartphone or your social media activities that kind of importance or power in your life.” By now the clock had chimed 6:30am. I left Nneoma for work. When, at the end of the day, it was night, I looked through my window, the weak blue light was still there. But the light disappeared sooner than it appeared. I smiled. Nneoma left our house after two weeks and her two power banks were left behind with a note: “Thank you uncle.” I smiled again.


Writer’s Byline

Tochukwu Onyeagolu, is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria. He is currently a parish vicar at St Anthony of Padua Parish, Nkpor.

First published in The Torch magazine No. 155, June-December 2018 Edition entitled Pastoral Care for the Young
The Torch is a publication of Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu

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