Smash Talks: Digital Divide

Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.

Dear Smashera,

Whenever I am around my mother, she spends the entire time on her phone. Unless she’s driving or actively asleep, she’s on her phone. She’s like a teenager. I’ll get her attention and she’ll act like she’s listening for a minute, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s definitely more interested in the phone than she is in me.

I’ve tried to speak with her about it in the moment (“Hey mom, it really hurts my feelings when your phone takes priority over me”), but there’s always an excuse – some sort of urgent social matter needs to be dealt with, via text, RIGHT NOW, and I’m a jerk for asking her to wait at least until after I’m done speaking to use her phone.

I’m kind of at a loss right now. She always texts me to tell me that she misses me, but when we’re together, it really seems like I’d be better off catching up with her in iMessage than in real life. This is a bummer and I don’t feel like I’ve been approaching it correctly. What do you think?


Deprived of non-digital connection

Dear Deprived,

You’re touching on one of the most paradoxical struggles of the modern age. Our ability to rapidly connect to multitudes of humans at a near immediate pace has (in some cases) stunted our capacity to be present with those around us. This exchange with your mother is frustrating on multiple levels, but most profoundly in that you have repeatedly tried to connect and it’s been denied. That cuts deep, especially from a parent.

It sounds like calling her out in the moment is putting her on the defensive. She’s unable to respond to your needs if she’s feeling called out because instead of hearing, “Oh, my baby needs me,” her ego steps in and says, “Fight the attack.” In order to get your message across so she can hear it, you’ll need to play to her preferred view of herself.

What’s a preferred view? I’m so glad you asked.

Preferred views are the tales we tell of self-preservation and how we see ourselves. They are intrinsic to how we cognitively place our existence in context with others. They’re related to self-esteem but tend to be more thematic and even narrative. After all, we are the protagonists, if not the heroes of our own stories. These narratives look something like, “I am a good mother,” or, “I am a hard worker.” In a more self-deprecating mind, they might say, “I am damaged,” or a sinister mind might say, “I am superior to everyone.”

You have your own preferred view of yourself, as does your mother. Hers is probably something like, “I am a good mother and needed, as evidenced by how often my loved ones communicate with me via text.” In that view, then yes, how dare you interrupt her from being important and needed.

(I never said preferred views were always healthy.)

I think that it is important to sit down and have a serious conversation with your mother. Schedule it somewhere that is safe for her. Texting her, “I really need to come by and talk to you,” adds a bit of gravity to the situation so she’s more likely to be present, at least for a moment. Tell her that during this conversation you need her to put her phone away and not message it. Let her finish her messages. If she pulls out her phone during this conversation, stop talking. Wait. She’ll feel awkward as hell.

To play to her preferred view, you need to frame it as, “I know that you’re very needed and that you’re a good mom and friend, but I need our time together to be focused on us being together.” Make sure you do all those “fighting fair” techniques, like using “I” statements and avoiding terms like “always” and “never.” Point out the patterns that you’ve noticed. Own your hurt. This is more than a mild annoyance — this is full stop hurt.

In her responses, look for compromises. If you approach this as a problem that can be solved together and that does not diminish your own feelings, I think she might be able to hear you. Worst case scenario, you can send her to this letter in a link.