New Skills for New Devices

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As user manuals fade into historical footnotes, the technological marvels in our pockets give us more and more options. But are we equipped to make the right decisions for our technology and our lives?

Nobody “Reads the (Fine) Manual” Anymore

In earlier times, when someone complained with a technical problem, the ready refrain was “RTFM” or “Read the (Fine) Manual”. Manuals for even the earliest cell phones used to be elaborate affairs, sometimes weighing in at nearly a hundred pages. Computer games from the eighties and nineties came with elaborate manuals, which needed to be read in detail to make much headway in the games of the day.

Today you’ll be lucky if you get more than a wafer-thin getting-started guide with your latest tech gizmo. In one sense, this is a triumph of industrial design. Devices are “friendly” enough that most people can simply fiddle with them until the user succeeds at their intended task. Designs are standardizing in much the same way as automobiles currently do. While you might have a moment’s confusion about where the headlamp or wiper controls live, the basic control layout carries over from model to model and even between brands. The same can be said of smartphones. I, an Android devotee, can at least manage the basics of my niece’s iPhone.

Despite our devices becoming easier to use, it seems as though we’re using them less skillfully as time goes by. We’re looking at our phones when we’d be better off talking to the friends and family who are right in front of us. Some of us get hooked on the latest casual / social game to the point where sleep, work, and personal hygiene can suffer. Even if we had comprehensive manuals, they wouldn’t have the kind of information that’s needed. Technical manuals can tell you how to send a text, but it won’t warn you against repeatedly texting your ex-girlfriend when you’re drunk and lonely in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

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What’s needed to make our computers and smartphones our servants instead of our masters is not so much technical as cultural. I can imagine a book on etiquette just for mobile technology. Just as there are guidelines for what to do with a napkin at dinner or which fork to use for which course, we need to develop, either individually or as a culture, a set of rules, preferences, or guidelines that steer us around some of the biggest problems we face when using our gadgets. Here are a few thoughts on what digital etiquette might look like.

To Answer or Not to Answer

Phones used to be easy. If a phone rang, you were supposed to answer it. With no answering services, phones would ring until someone picked up or the caller hung up, whichever came first. When phones were wired down, answering a phone was almost always the right answer, but not so much anymore. Because we bring our phones with us everywhere and leave them on more or less constantly, the rings now happen at increasingly inopportune times. Despite research that shows talking on the phone while driving is on par with drunken driving, the compulsion to answer remains strong. I’ve heard of people interrupting sex to answer their phones. Clients in my office are somewhat taken aback when I suggest that they may want to delay answering a call while we’re in session. Turnabout is fair play: most of my colleagues have had their own phones go off in sessions, which is a no-no. For a wide variety of reasons, the “automatic answer” policy needs a re-think.

While this may be an etiquette problem, technical fixes do exist. A colleague did me an invaluable service when he pointed out how I could get my calendar to turn my phone’s ringer on and off, which has saved me the trouble of turning it off before sessions and on again afterwards. After having my sleep interrupted at 3am by an errant automated text messages one too many times, I learned how to automatically have my phone go dead silent for eight hours every night. Of course I could do this all manually but it’s too easy to forget, and there’s no need of it when I can make my phone work for me instead of against me.

Alert: You Need to Turn Off Some Notifications

With land lines, there was exactly one kind of ring, and that was that. Smartphones changed all that. Now there’s a ring for voice calls, an alert for texts, another for instant messages (and there can be several types of this app running all at the same time). Twitter has alerts. Facebook has alerts. Every one of those super-addicting social games has its own alerts. So it’s no wonder that phones ring and beep more often and more insistently than ever before. Notifications, if they’re to be kept under control, require reviewing and pruning. Turning off unnecessary notifications one by one can be time consuming, but getting back the mental space to string a few thoughts together without a bleat from your phone is worth it.

Mind Your (Digital) Table Manners

If you look at outdoor photos prior to about 1950, all the men will be wearing hats. Today hats on men are rare, but future generations will wonder why so many people in photos from 2013 will be looking down at their phones. The urge to “check your phone” seems insatiable for many, and it comes at times when we really should be paying attention, such as at the dinner table. Clever diners have come up with a solution: at the beginning of dinner, a party agrees to stack their phones in the center of the table, face down. If anyone picks up their phone before the meal is over, they are responsible for the entire tab. This simple ritual demonstrates one more way that a little forethought can strike back at the nearly-universal distraction of modern mobile technology.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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