The five-second game

Roxanne Henke

You have five seconds. Name three superheroes. Go! Name three things you can jump on! Go!

It was just a simple, silly game I was playing with my grandkids, ages 8 and 5 at the time. Between the jumping around and giggling, there was hardly one question they managed to answer in five seconds. Until I asked this question: “Name three things adults do!”

And, my 5-year-old grandson rattled off, “Eat. Sleep. Look at their phones.”

And he still had two seconds left. “Look at their phones.” Ouch.

Every adult with whom I’ve shared that question/answer has given me a raised-eyebrows, hard-swallow, me-too look. It seems we are all guilty as charged.

Which causes me to wonder, if we all admit to being guilty, what do we do about it?

I have some ideas and none of them are easy. Unfortunately, it’s not those of us looking at our phone screens who feel the punishment. It’s the kids who are watching us gaze with laser-like focus at an inert piece of glass who are paying the price. What is the price of our greater concern for updates from friends? Or a link to an article on something we would have never even thought about if someone we barely know hadn’t posted it? And, that link leads to another link to something else we don’t need to know. All while our children stand by, wanting, waiting, asking for our attention. When we say, “Just a second,” and seconds turn into minutes, what do they do? Mostly, they turn to their own screens. It should come as no surprise when we ask them to put down the phone and help with a task that we hear our own words echoed back to us, “Just a second.”

It’s not as if our obsession with screens is new. I’m guessing more people than me remember being awake at midnight, listening to the national anthem playing on the black-and-white television, watching while the flag blew in a soft breeze, and then the screen went to black-and-white static. And, how many of us sat in front of that same television set on a Saturday morning, waiting for the buzzy-fuzz to turn into cartoons?

Anyone remember Atari, an early computer game? Our older daughter begged us to get it. We didn’t even have a computer at the time. But, the neighbor kids had one. It didn’t take long for our daughter to come stomping home, declaring, “I hate Atari.” Oh, she didn’t hate the game. She hated that it took away the attention of her friends. They preferred to play the game instead of with her.

Now, almost all of these screens are portable. They go with us wherever we go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a gas station bathroom and, just for a second, thought the person in the stall next to me was talking to me. Nope. On the phone.

Oftentimes when I’m shopping, I watch someone go through a checkout line not making eye contact, much less conversation, with the cashier. Have you ever taken a good look at the checkout person when the customer they are helping is “checked out?” What I observe is a feeling of invisibility. They are doing a service and being ignored. What message are we sending when a device is more important than a living, breathing person standing right in front of us?

I’ll admit I’m not blameless. There are times when a call I’m expecting comes at an inconvenient time. There are times I’m caught up in conversation and probably hurt the feelings of others.

I read a study that said the mere presence of a phone on a table distracts the owner, even if it’s turned face down. How attached to our phones have we gotten when we feel the need to glance at them, instead of the person we are with, even when the screen isn’t visible?

We used to go whole days without picking up a phone. We could drive hundreds of miles and never feel the need to check in with anyone. There was freedom in that. It created time for uninterrupted thinking. For daydreaming. Back when I was novel writing, I would often turn off my phone when I was driving. I had empty miles, endless roads and no interruptions to let my mind develop new plot twists, create conversations between my characters, and get a perspective on my novel I never had while glued to my computer, where the interruptions of a ringing phone, email or Facebook always vied for my attention.

There are times when I accidentally leave the house without my phone. I feel weirdly naked. What will I do if I need help? What will my kids/husband/friends do if they need to talk to me? And then I realize, I’ll do what I did in the “old days.” I talked to other people. I asked for help if I needed it.

Simply writing this column, contemplating all this a bit more, has made me want to leave my phone behind on purpose. (Gasp!) I’m tired of being tied to an inanimate object that seems to control me in some way. In fact, right now I’m going to go for a walk and leave my phone behind! (If you don’t hear from me in two months, send out a search party.)

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke lives in rural North Dakota with her husband, her dog and her cellphone. You can contact her at