Less than fifteen years ago, the iPhone took the world by a storm as one of the first smart phones to hit the market. It’s hard to believe we’ve only had tiny supercomputers attached to us for only that long, less than many of our adult lives. As mobile Internet has become more ubiquitous and smart phones more capable, “there’s an app for that” has become increasingly true for nearly every aspect of our lives from staying in touch with friends to tracking our money, and much, much more. In fact, odds are pretty good that you’re reading this post on your smart phone right now even when thirty years ago, you might not even have had a computer in your house at all.
The insinuation of cell phones into our daily lives means that there’s a lot of very personal and sensitive information that’s stored on them or that can be accessed through them. Even if you try to limit the apps you install and stick with using a regular computer or tablet you keep at home to log into financial or similar websites, you almost certainly use your phone for at least some variety of social media, chat, texting, email, or other kind of messaging. You probably also do at least some shopping through your phone, or use it for some form of digital payments such as through Apple Pay or Venmo even if they aren’t tied directly to your main bank accounts. With the rise of two-factor authentication, you very likely have an app to generate the random code that serves as the second piece you enter in addition to your password when you log in to sensitive sites.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s a fact of modern life and really, our cell phones make life better and more convenient in so many ways even when we wish we could escape the constant pinging of notifications and the ability to be reached almost anywhere, anytime.
However, it does make it important to remain aware of what information is directly on your phone or accessible through it. Think not just of your secrets, small and large, but those of your friends as well. If you, like me, use your cell phone for deep conversations via text, chances are that you and your closest confidantes have shared the kinds of stories that are meant for your eyes only. Even long afterward, those details may remain on your phone, waiting for someone to scroll back and find them. Maybe you, as you reminisce about the past or try to remember a long-ago exchange. Or maybe someone else, with whom your friend hasn’t agreed to share their innermost thoughts and feelings.
Most people have some sort of digital lock on their phones now. Many people use relatively simple combinations or passwords, or set up the phone to not lock under a variety of circumstances: it’s been used recently, it’s plugged in to a power source, it’s at a location defined as home. After all, it’s inconvenient to keep having to plug in a code and fingerprint or facial recognition can be unreliable when our hands are wet or we’re wearing masks. Even when our phones are locked, some locking mechanisms can be easy to defeat by other people, like certain biometrics that don’t require us to be awake to be effective or if we just need our smart watch nearby. Besides, we might have notifications that will display on the lock screen, with varying levels of detail. It’s all very understandable: smart phones are supposed to make our lives easier, to make us better able to stay in touch with our friends and the rest of the world. Keeping them well secured makes it harder for us to do that. Even unlocked, we might have certain notifications that pop up and are readable over our shoulders or have unlocked individual apps that could be opened by someone we’ve allowed to use our phone for some limited purpose.
It’s extraordinarily rare for two people to share every detail and every secret, and I’d argue it can be a red flag if you don’t have some privacy between you and someone else in your life. It may be limited to fun surprises you want to plan for each other or other small things, but someone else having access to your every single thought isn’t healthy. It makes it difficult for you to be you – just you, not you-as-part-of-somebody-else. And it makes it difficult for you to maintain other relationships with people who rightly may only want to share with you, individually. Some level of merging happens in all relationships – that connection is what makes them what they are. It remains important to maintain a level of separation too, though what that looks like is individual to you and that other person. Whatever it is, if you don’t keep certain things secret between you and a friend or partner, you’ll want to tell others who might expect privacy that you might tell certain things to that other person.
In a perfect world, everyone around you respects your boundaries about what you do and don’t want to share. In reality, it’s a trickier line to walk because everyone has different ideas of what’s okay and not okay to share, and it matters who the other person is. It’s one thing when it’s your brand-new college roommate. It’s another when it’s your best friend for the last three decades, you know?
Besides, even when we can trust them, there’s something to adding speed bumps to gently remind folks that they are not welcome to riffle through the digital extension of yourself that’s embodied in your cell phone, not to mention dealing with the folks who aren’t in your innermost circles and who might have access to your phone for whatever reason. Take the time, sometime soon, to work through what some of those speed bumps might be appropriate in your life. Maybe it’s time to use app-level locks for certain communication apps. Maybe you need to change notifications to only show that you have a new message, not a preview of what’s in it or even who it’s from. Maybe you need to stop letting your phone remain unlocked for long periods of time. Maybe you need to get out of the habit of handing over your phone to show a friend a funny meme, or have a conversation with your new partner about the fact that you expect your phone to remain private so they need to ask you before they pick it up next time.
Doing so adds a measure of protection to your privacy, and it also creates a fence line so that it’s clear to you and to the other person when that barrier around your secrets has been broken. By creating that boundary, you also signal to yourself and to others to start thinking about what it means when they move past it. How much would it matter to you that a particular person has worked to see something you didn’t want them to see? How would it affect the rest of your relationship with them? What would the consequences be for that breach?
Think about it this weekend, and maybe spend some of that extra holiday weekend time navigating your phone-related boundaries with the people in your life, and adjusting how you’ll define and defend them.