I have developed a twitch.

I can’t go more than 15 minutes without reaching into my pocket, pulling out my smartphone and checking in with the torrent of communications coming at me through email, the social web and my blog.

It’s at the point where this has become an involuntary reflex like a breath or a heart beat.  It happens on a regular pace, without planning or thought.  It is outside of my awareness, like a blink.

And it’s become a problem.  This week I was at dinner with friends and realized I had tuned out the conversation and was immersed in my phone.  I felt embarrassed because I knew how rude this must have seemed but I didn’t even remember pulling the device out.  And while I can occasionally fake through an episode of “Geez, these clients are demanding,” in truth, I could just as likely have been checking into Foursquare.

I have become a smartphone douchbag.

How did this happen?

I know I’m not alone in this experience, but as I reflect, I think there are two forces that have conditioned this new behavior.

I’ve always been a hard-worker, but even a few years ago, I could still dis-engage unless I had a laptop and an Ethernet connection. Now, work follows me like air.

Second, the torrent of communications can be overwhelming. 150 emails a day. 300 Twitter mentions. Dozens of LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube requests.  All good stuff, but if I let my guard down for even half a day, I am in a deep hole, so I just keep on shoveling, shoveling, shoveling a little bit at a time.

I’m not meaning for this to be a personal whiny-boy session because I know I make my own choices in life but I also sense this is happening to a lot of other people.  It’s even creeping into academic research and some are worried that the ubiquitous electronic connections we maintain may be weakening family ties.

Social psychologist Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University is among those studying our relationship with technology. “At any moment, you’re dividing your attention between the person in front of you and the person you’re giving snippets of information to. We don’t know the net consequence of reducing the quality of the relationship a little bit with the person you’re with while improving or maintaining it with the person you’re electronically tied to.”

The fact is, when I twitch and pull out my iPhone at a family dinner, I am sending a message: “Excuse me, but there is someone I’d rather be interacting with than you.” Awful.

The problem becomes magnified because I’m not the only one at the table with the twitch.  My kids can be even worse.  And while I may KNOW I’m jeopardizing human relationships, I’m not sure they do. The world of disconnected, heads-down, “thumb communication” is the preferred method of maintaining relationships for many teens. There is a wide generational communication gap emerging, but that is another blog post entirely!

I am in a period of transition. I need to place limits on this thing … in effect, I need to parent myself.  I am looking for ways to address the root causes — an inability to dis-engage without making the problems worse, and the pressure of constant communications.

But in the mean time, I would be so interested in your experiences with this dilemma. What are you experiencing and what is your strategy to deal with it? Are you a smartphone douchebag?

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