One of the distinguishing, if not alarming qualities of our current historical moment is that cultural change occurs so rapidly and dramatically that one generation can scarcely recognize the next.  Digital innovations of even the last twenty years have so forcefully changed everyday behaviors and communicatory norms that a grandparent simply asking a grandchild “what are you up to?” will likely end in confusion or belabored explanation.  Home routines are similarly succumbing to the speed of change as digital devices become more common and portable.  Years ago, I heard a man proudly proclaim that his new iPhone was the first thing he touched every morning and the last thing he touched every night.  Yet, perhaps one of the oddest and what elders might find least recognizable changes to customs of the home is how digital technology has intruded into one of the home’s most sacred sanctuary spaces…the bathroom.

I remember a time when the bathroom was a quiet place of momentary respite, where one could, in comfort and privacy, take a break from social activity and reflect on the day or maybe engage in some light reading.  However, a marketing survey of 1,000 people last year found that a shocking 75% of respondents use their smart phone while on the toilet.  Of these people, 30% of men and 20% of women reported that they always use the toilet with a digital device, every time. A separate study found that 19% of cell phone owners have actually dropped their phone in the toilet.  A quick survey of the numerous web pages offering advice on how to fix a toilet water-soaked phone seem to corroborate these findings.  These are startling statistics and mark a notable change in the lavatory landscape.  Moreover, and more interestingly, these statistics also point to the possible emergence of national digital ritual, emerging ‘organically’, if you will, without the explicit coordination or marketing impetus of a Cyber Monday, for instance.

The repurposing of bathroom breaks toward digitally mediated activity raises new questions about how we value, organize, and designate our use of time in privacy.  The bathroom, whether at home or in public venues, occupies a fairly unique place in our society. In a country where privacy is increasingly trespassed upon, as the current NSA controversies remind us, the bathroom is among the most reliably private spaces, where (reasonable) personal time is respected without question.  It stands to reason that how we utilize this time, beyond biological necessity of course, says something about who we are and what we value when the world isn’t watching.

Some interesting questions probing this topic might include the following.  How are smart phones and related devices being used in this space, i.e. for leisure, social, or productive activities, and how does this extra time make a difference?  Has the duration of bathroom visits increased in proportion to the rise in digital activity on the toilet, and if so, what affect might this extended private time have on social relationships and expectations of interpersonal exchange in the home or at work?  What other factors might be undergirding this compelling, if not compulsive force to fiddle with a digital gadget during any moment of down time?  And finally, what new sanitation ideas or habits have people developed to accommodate for possible unhygienic consequences in technological toilet excursions?  Answers to these questions may reveal more about our lives and priorities than we might expect, or admit.

By Shanti Zaid