The temperature was a balmy 31 degrees and I was just savouring my first mouthful of Greek salad when the complaint arose: 'Mummy why can't we have the tablet at the table like that girl?' I glanced across to see a young child at the table with her parents. On her head she wore the largest, pinkest headphones I've ever seen and she held an equally brightly coloured tablet.
Discreetly, I watched as she sat very much plugged in and unaware of the mealtime her parents seemingly didn't want her to be part of. They too both had mobile phones in hand. She forked her food around her plate with one hand, while scrolling her way around the screen with her other. 'We're having family mealtime together and we like to talk at the table,' I replied, much to my eight-year-old son's dislike.
We had come on the holiday of a lifetime and hoped to be able to switch off completely from our busy lives – and to have a break from digital devices. Not easy, I hear you say, and the episode in the restaurant on the first night only heightened my awareness as to just how hard it can be.
I watched people on beaches sunbathing, but with a mobile phone always in hand. The idea of wading, neck high, into the Mediterranean with a mobile phone wouldn't occur to me. It would appear that to many it's the ultimate selfie opportunity. But it was in tavernas and cafes that it struck me most. People just not talking – or even looking at one another; instead constantly engaged in something else via a screen.
We don't seem comfortable to be alone any more. We are making ourselves busier than ever – on screen. Talking business, complaining, reviewing, sharing secrets, making announcements, booking, buying and banking. All day. All night.
It's an all-consuming, never-ending presence. Whoever would have thought that the little black box in your pocket or handbag could have such power? I did a marketing course recently and heard a Google digital expert explain that every day there are quillions of megabytes of data circulating the globe – of which we're all a part. More than half of all that is being done on mobile phones. Some would say it's simply a modern convenience and pleasure. I say it's a pressure. And it's getting worse.
As a parent I used to get letters and flyers from school and sports clubs, phone calls to arrange play dates and birthday party invitations. Now, all of that has been replaced with text messages, social media posts and email. I spend increasing time in the evenings keeping up with my children's social lives. I panic at bedtime when I realise there's someone or something I've forgotten. Heaven help you if you don't keep up to date. The consequences are disastrous and do little for your credibility as a savvy 21st-century parent.
In relationships, we have to compete with screen time, as if there's someone else in the room for our partner, someone more interesting and valuable. A friend recently commented on her husband's growing obsession with his phone. He'll sit in every spare moment mindlessly googling just about anything and reading about other people's lives. Cars for sale, sports results, news, holidays, the next door neighbour's whereabouts at the weekend – it's as if his phone has become an additional body part, an extension to his arm, his thumb being the only part of his body getting any exercise.
I've been guilty. An evening can pass by with little eye contact or conversation between my husband and me, as we tap and scroll our way through the last hours of the day.
The workplace is becoming just as digitally driven as our homes. I used to walk up the corridor to discuss something with a colleague, but now we just email or text. So much so that a verbal conversation is easily forgotten and discounted as there is no evidence or techno trail to prove it ever happened. Even the language we use in emails is a dark literary jungle – one hastily typed message wrongly perceived can cause a real storm.
Until recently in my workplace (a national park), we didn't engage with social media. We interacted with our customers and visitors in person or on the phone (and the good old fax of course). But now, Facebook has created a whole new arena in which we have to communicate 24/7. There's no longer any 'switch off' when you leave, with many of us drawn into responding to questions and queries long after home time.
Visitors to the park expect this connectedness. They want to share their location and experiences instantly around the globe and are greatly disturbed when they realise there is no wifi. Putting my marketing hat on, I sometimes wonder if this lack of connectivity could become our USP instead? The ultimate isolation and escape from it all could become almost trendy, tourism experts say.
But this is how society wants to communicate and trying to keep up with it is exhausting. I suggest that our quality of life is in decline because of it. Technology providers tell us we're more connected than ever before. But are we? With so much time spent staring into a small glowing screen, perhaps we're actually more isolated than we think.
I don't know the solution to this. And don't get me wrong: technology and the digital age have made life easier. Perhaps it's more of an inner battle we all face. Every minute of the day, a choice: whether to log on or look up. Whether to worry about slow downloads or to slow down ourselves – long enough to have meaningful conversations and enjoy the people around us. Just like we used to.