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June 2012
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Cellphones seem to have our number


Eyes up.

Chances are if you followed the Murray State University men's basketball team during the past two years, you've seen Coach Steve Prohm's two-word mantra trending on social media or mentioned in news stories. Those words, drawn from the Bible, are meant to keep his players focused.

The phrase kept coming back to my mind every time I looked out into a classroom or looked around at public events. Eyes down. Fingers clicking over touch screens to type text or Snapchat messages or thumbs scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter feed.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we have become a society with our eyes cast downward toward a screen as we text, tweet, check email or cruise Facebook multiple times a day. According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 67 percent of cellphone owners find themselves checking for messages, alerts or calls, even when no ringing or vibrations happen. The study, released earlier this year, found that 44 percent of cellphone owners admitted to sleeping with the device next to the bed because they didn't want to miss anything during the night, and 29 percent say the phone is "something they can't imagine living without."

One of my teaching colleagues and I discussed how we've noticed students with their eyes down as they tap on screens or scroll through social media before, during and after class. She posted a note to her Facebook account that drew 47 likes, many of them from educators, that said in part, "You. Are. Missing. It. Put the phone down. Missed messages are not NEARLY as important as missed opportunities to ask questions and see something new that is right in front of you."

Her post mentioned the power of the smartphone, but too many of us are guilty of living our lives with eyes down, rather than eyes up. We are focused too much on our phones and what's happening on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine or Snapchat, just to name a few, and then we obsessively check multiple email accounts and reply to texts.

At restaurants, ball games and shopping malls, many people are texting or using social media on their phones as the person right next to them is doing the same. They might talk to the person, but they aren't looking them in the eye. Eyes down again, glued to the phone. What might they be missing? A smile. A twinkle of the eye. A subtle nod.

I hate to admit it but I'm as guilty of it as my students and the respondents to the Pew study. I've caught myself living with eyes down, fingers flying on a small keypad and my brain locked to the outside world during conferences and even during family activities. My brain is focused on being productive whether it's answering emails, writing an article or grading papers.

Those messages can and should wait. But yet, the human mind locks in and says that whatever the messages are they can't wait. We have to know the latest text, tweet or cool thing that the phone can do.

Eyes down again. I glanced at my phone during a morning jog through my neighborhood to check my time, distance and pace and then something fluttered in the distance to my left. A brilliant red cardinal landed for a millisecond on a white mailbox post. Nature's beauty, but my obsession with the pace and distance almost cost that one moment. The faintest line of pink on the horizon. The purple iris beginning to wake up and open into full splendor. The birds swooping to the grass and gobbling their morning breakfast worm.

Think about how many little things we miss because we're living with our eyes down rather than eyes up.

The messages? They can wait.

Family and friends? We may think they can wait, but they shouldn't have to wait.

Nature? It's fleeting. Another moment with the eyes down, and I would have missed that beautiful cardinal.

It's time to live with eyes up and focus on life rather than an electronic device.

Leigh Landini Wright is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Murray State University. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Paducah Sun.

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