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Why are we sleeping with our phones?

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When you woke up this morning, did you reach for your cell phone? Was it right next to the bed? Or under your pillow? Did you use it as an alarm clock? And if you did what was the first thing you did after you disabled the alarm? Read email? Check Facebook? Tweet?

If the above does not apply to you and your phone is kept well beyond your reach while you slumber, you’re in the slim majority. An average of 44% of cell phone owners sleep with their phones nearby so as to not miss calls, text messages, or other updates. While this behavior is most common among the 18 – 34 age range, it remains fairly regular and consistent among older cell phone owners as well. Fear of missing out (FOMO) has followed us into the bedroom.

But you’re probably not surprised by that—and your response in and of itself isn’t surprising. The boundaries between our private spaces and public spaces have always been mutable—and subsequently, so have the appropriate behaviors assigned to each arena. So perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to (and expect) some overlap. This fluidity is most clearly exposed when we begin to dissect the concept of Home. The multiplicity of this experience means it can occur within the same time and place and still be different. These variations are tied to the economic and social disposition of the individual. Home can be a mansion or a cafe or a park or an underpass. The feeling of Home can be established wherever there is an intentional meeting between people who desire and enjoy each other’s company.

Despite this fluidity, our Homes embody privacy and autonomy. We can thank the Victorians for that. In the wake of urbanization and industrialization, the growing class of bourgeoisie established the home as a fortress that protected those within from the demands of trade and work. They compartmentalized their lives: Public spaces were for business and commerce, while private spaces were governed by family needs, personal interactions, and self expression. This had not always been the case. It wasn’t uncommon for people to live where they worked in the case of tradesmen, for example. And where space was a luxury, poorer families often transacted family experiences in public. The Victorian middle class established a privileged space of leisure. What did one do at Home? Well, you could eat, entertain, be intimate with a partner, or be angry without needing to censor oneself or conform to a a communal sense of propriety. Dickens brings this sensibility to life in Fred’s Christmas party in A Christmas Carol. Fred and his invited guests play lively games to pass the time following their meal. They assess Scrooge at length, even gossip a bit about him. They can do so away from the outside. This is their space.

At Home, house rules or social codes don’t necessarily need to match those of the larger public arena, where social norms reflect the expected experience of the majority. The concept of Home has attained an exulted status. It’s the place where we can most freely be ourselves. We admit only those people we want near us and we fill it with things that we choose. We hurry there for shelter following a bad day and we remain within its walls when we need to recharge. We might dread leaving it in the morning. It is ours and it is an empowering space.

But we don’t just stay within the comfort of their home. We have jobs or errands to run or doctor appointments or friends to meet, and all of that requires that we leave our Homes. So we go out, but we take a piece of our Home with us. It true—we read or listen to music or maybe watch a movie to occupy our time, but we also do these things to extend the our autonomy and privacy in a shared space.

The domestication of the public space is the process by which it becomes acceptable to do the things typically reserved for private spaces in public. For example, eating outdoors was once a sign of the lower classes. Poorer families in medieval cities didn’t have kitchens, so they sent meat out to be cooked by street vendors. Part of the public/private dichotomy was moving eating indoors. But today we might eat outdoors as we do indoors—for example, we might invite a group of loved ones to to a meal, but our dinnertime exchanges will typically limited to our companions. So even though we’re at an outdoor cafe or restaurant and we’re dining with other strangers, we never have to interact with anyone beyond the perimeter of our table. We have taken a private behavior and codified it for a public experience. Think of it as Fred’s party performed on a stage; the actors are entirely contained, and we watch from the outside (or engage in our own performances around that one).

This isn’t a new phenomenon. For example, when automobiles became popular, they allowed us to take a piece of Home on the road. Cars are our own personal rolling spaces. Think about it: we can do almost anything in an automobile that we can do at home—certainly eating, entertainment, the expression of intimacy, and of emotions can occur on a set of Continentals. But even simpler things, like a picnic basket, have the same effect of allowing us a take a piece of the familiar out into the potential unknown. But this isn’t a one-way flow. The outside creeps in in the ways in which we have continually worked toward maintaining the sanctity of the home.

One of the hallmarks of Home is convenience. Popular conveniences include being order food and have it delivered, renting movies, shopping online, and working from home. These are activities that we might have left the house to do but can be done in the home with added support. However, they require minimizing an aspect of the private realm to allow some of the public space indoors with us. For example, ordering take-out means we lose some of the experience of preparation. We still get the social aspect of the meal, but the meal as a solely private function is diminished because we’re inviting outside elements into our private space. Renting a movie brings an experience into the home that we would have had to leave the home for. It is the outside coming in. Shopping and wage-labor are public-realm activities by tradition, and to bring them into the Home further blurs the public/private boundary, eroding just a little the boundaries we have crafted.

Of course, technology magnifies this sense of convenience. Social media keeps us in contact with loved ones, portable devices can provide hours of entertainment in the form of games, movies, and music. And food? There’s definitely an app or two out there that will help with that—and you don’t have to talk to anyone either. These pursuits have been neatly condensed into a our cellular phones. We take these devices out, and we bring them in with us. In both spaces, they’re a convenience: 70% of cell phone owners have used their phones for “just-in-time” information, including coordinating meetings (41%), looking up information (27%), and checking traffic or public transit information (20%). But that convenience comes with a price: connectivity. Staying in touch with your loved ones means that you have to allow them to also stay in touch with you, whether you’re on the sidewalk or in your living room.

But we have a sense that this is problematic; our loved ones complain if we don’t respond to a text quickly, so we keep our phones nearby even as loved ones with whom we may share a home complain we spend too much time on our phones. This threatens the idea of Home because now everyone claims to belong there whether or not you expressly invited them. The conflict presented comes from both spaces, and it blurs previously established boundaries, but it is this conflict allows convenience to reign.

We’re redefining Home in the face of these conveniences. The manipulation of these conveniences allow us to craft hybrid experiences that reflect our individual tastes. We take our music with us on portable devices so we can have our music, the tunes that make us happy or sad. We order take-out that we enjoy eating. And shop online at times that are convenient to us. The outside comes in, just as it does with other conveniences. And once it’s in, it goes where we go—including our bedrooms.

We sleep with our phones because they’re instrumental in this experience and in the exercise of creation. They’re great tools, so even if we’ve silenced them or otherwise made an effort to “unplug” we keep them near because they tether us to a widening network of both people and services. We’re using both at any given moment to shape our spaces.

Are you sleeping with your phone? Where was the last public space where you wielded your device as a shield for privacy?

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Kumar, K., & Makarova, E. (2008). The Portable Home: The Domestication of Public Space* Sociological Theory, 26 (4), 324-343 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9558.2008.00332.x

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. theaterlon 5:56 pm 06/10/2014

    Excuse me Krystal, your blog shows a very narrowness of age and experience.

    In the historic days of yore, before we each had our own communication device (maybe twenty years ago or so) when having a phone meant it was at the end of a wire, most families had a quaint thing called an extension installed, an actual wire run into the bedroom so when the phone ‘rang’ in the middle of the night, one did not have to get up and run to the kitchen to see who was calling.

    If anything, mobile phones have made life MORE difficult, for exactly that reason, what is worse than getting up and leaving your phone in the bedroom while cooking breakfast, or leaving it your purse in the kitchen and having it ring while in bed.

    Having wireless devices has imparted a new discipline in our lives, that is one of ‘charge’. Since keeping our devices charged is as necessary as providing sleep to our bodies, it has become a no-brainer to recharge our devices while we recharge ourselves.

    But to think that this is any kind of new behavior, shows no knowledge of the past

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  2. 2. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 11:23 pm 06/10/2014

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You are absolutely right and in no way should this be read as a criticism of technology in this regard. While it’s tempting to shake our heads and allow mobile technology to shoulder the blame of the breakdown between the division of the public and private, that would be wrong. As noted in the article above, this breakdown began to occur well before electronics entered out lives. The growth of social media and mobile technology has resulted in the erosion of the walls of the private, and allowed personal agenda items, such as private conversations and individual music enjoyment, to travel into the public sphere. As these walls crumble and crack, we find that personal space is jostled and becomes constricted, and this change is happening within the home.

    Social lives have always been lived in both the public and private spheres. However, as we rally under the banner of convenience we’re finding new complications. You aptly point one out: forgetting your phone leaves you without connectivity and reduces the convenience of having mobile technology to a non-factor. We’re being forced to negotiate new definitions of space in this context.

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  3. 3. Wayne Williamson 5:58 pm 06/12/2014

    In addition to the above comments, I would also state, that pagers(for those on call) have been completely replaced. Also, for those who have to be alerted by computer system failure alarms, its very easy to have the computer send an sms to the support group.
    Face it, the smart phone has replaced or supplemented many devices.

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  4. 4. Morsels For The Mind – 13/06/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast 4:18 pm 06/14/2014

    [...] is music to our ears. Literally. Philip Ball on the beauty of music.Sleeping with the enemy? Smart phones have invaded our bedrooms. Is that good? Krystal D'Costa takes a critical look.****Behind the scenes – the workings of life’s museum of [...]

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  5. 5. URLs of wisdom (15th June) | Social in silico 8:42 am 06/15/2014

    [...] Why are we sleeping with our phones? Interesting exploration of the notion of home – and the tradeoffs we make in terms of privacy and convenience when we make that home portable:”…convenience comes with a price: connectivity. Staying in touch with your loved ones means that you have to allow them to also stay in touch with you, whether you’re on the sidewalk or in your living room. But we have a sense that this is problematic; our loved ones complain if we don’t respond to a text quickly, so we keep our phones nearby even as loved ones with whom we may share a home complain we spend too much time on our phones. This threatens the idea of Home because now everyone claims to belong there whether or not you expressly invited them.”  [...]

    Link to this
  6. 6. How will today’s technology change our concept of “work”? 11:10 pm 09/2/2014

    [...] – You might also like:Communicating Meaning Online: A Digital Expression of Theory of MindAre we ashamed of lunch?A robot in every home?How do we wait?Creeping Connectivity: Work and Life in a Hyper-connected WorldWhy are we sleeping with our phones? [...]

    Link to this
  7. 7. Blue Coaster33 8:14 pm 04/27/2015

    The Absent Game…

    Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over time than I can count, which include Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few ages I’ve settled down to one line of players….

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