Just Breathe

One of the many reasons I decided to ditch my Apple Watch was that it kept insisting that I pay attention to it. Too often, its digital nudges made me feel—sometimes literally, with a small bristling on my wrist—a curious combination of inadequacy, annoyance, and resolve.

“Time to stand!” it would chirp, usually when standing would have been inappropriate.

“Work toward your exercise goal,” it would admonish, showing a mostly untraveled circuit  that indicated my current lack of progress.

“Go to your meeting,” it would suggest, with a cheerful flash of the calendar.  

“No really, go to your meeting,” it would insist.

“Your meeting started five minutes ago,” it would say—not in words, but instead in the doleful display of how many minutes ago the meeting had begun, and was probably proceeding awkwardly without me.


My sedentary posture, my laziness, my unresponsiveness to text messages, my seemingly incurable tardiness: The watch foregrounded them relentlessly. Only occasionally would it commend my behavior:

“Congratulations, you’ve reached your stand goal!” it would gush.

And of course for a moment I would feel a species of elation; until I remembered that this wasn’t the kind of accomplishment one could really share with other people.

But the end really began when suddenly a new icon, a serene blue dot, appeared above one word: “Breathe.”


I tapped the dot. An animated blue-green flower appeared, then began opening and closing slowly, presumably indicating the pace at which I was meant to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and restore my body to some sort of order.  

Had I not been breathing? Had I been breathing, but not correctly? Perhaps erratically? Think about the occasions in your life when someone has told you to “breathe.” More often than not, they are trying to get you to calm down, and they mean “breathe deeply.” Also, when you’re breathing deeply, you can’t speak. So they probably also want you to stop talking. Why was my watch asking me to calm down and shut up?

It was disconcerting. I knew my watch could monitor my heart rate, so probably it was reading some irregularity in my breathing, and suggesting that I take a moment to restore my equilibrium. But who asked it to do this? One day it didn’t care about my breathing, the next day it did—without any prompting from me.

Was my watch also going to start telling me when to engage in other autonomic processes? Would it suggest that I sweat? Would it tell my hair to grow?

Of course I’m exaggerating my degree of naïveté about this. But I mention it because the genuine intrusion, distraction, and low-level anxiety my watch introduced into my life (to a finally unbearable degree) feels analogous, on a small scale, to the kind of intrusion and distraction that smartphones and smart devices introduce into all of our lives. And worse, these devices that give us constant, uninterrupted access to certain versions of the world and each other also seem to contribute to an epidemic level of anxiety and depression among young people. When kids are confronted with relentless communication and “updates” from friends and organizations whose primary goal is to get them to pay attention, we can imagine the combination of inadequacy, annoyance, and resolve (with that little hit of elation) magnified a thousandfold.  

As educators, I’m convinced that we need to respond somehow. This year, among other things, we will be considering—not only emotionally, as we often do, but also rationally, methodically, and with the help of diverse perspectives—what effect smartphones are having on our school community. There is no clear consensus at the moment about this effect, much less about any proper response to it. But there is no shortage of wailing and hair-tearing, and a general sense that we are in a world of dangers without a map. So we find ourselves needing to be our own guides. To that end, we will be assembling a working group of faculty, staff, and students (our “Screen Team”) to help begin to lead us wisely and reasonably through this unfamiliar territory to higher ground where we might see our way more clearly. This fall, we will show the film Screenagers, which many schools have used as a catalyst for conversation—there is a parent version and a student version, and a lot of material to help us discuss.   


At the same time, and hopefully in support of their work, I will be exploring here in “Of Education” some of the issues with smartphones and screen use that we are seeing here on campus, and trying to put those issues in context both of new research and of the steps others (sometimes whole countries, such as France) are taking to confront them. My hope is that we will soon be better-informed as a community, and readier to take healthy action in support of students.  

At the very least, we will remind one another to breathe.