It’s so tempting. It sucks you in. It demands your attention - and so you give it. It’s also a Catch-22. You want to be able get away from it - but, you want it with you all the time. With our smart-phones in hand, the world is at our beck and call - and we are at the beck and call of everyone who has our number. What is technology doing to us? How is it impacting our lives and our relationships? And are the conveniences really helping us as much as we think they are?
Don’t get me wrong. I have a smart-phone, too. But I have been noticing - as I’m sure many of you have - that, at times, it is more of a crutch than a convenience. I personally believe they are making us much more self-centered and self-important. And when it comes to socializing - face to face - the advent of the pervasive smart-phone has really set us back in the arena of personal interaction.
How often do we see people treating those around them as if they aren’t even there? What about the “crazy” guy, walking though the mall “talking to himself” at full volume on his earpiece? How often do we see someone put the people they are with “on pause” in order to answer a call? When did this become okay? Intimate details of people’s lives are practically shouted as a woman sits in a Starbuck’s gossiping with a friend on the other end of a call. Often a conversation drifts in to nothingness as one participant obsessively checks the status of the screen and becomes lost in the virtual world of a text message, the flesh and blood person in front of them momentarily forgotten. One mother tells me that when she drives past the high school to pick up her young children, it’s like a scene from a zombie movie - all the teens are out there, on the grass, walking around, standing in groups, but they’re all looking at their phones instead of talking to each other.
It’s very ironic because the rise of social media and texting is based upon our own natural instincts. We are social animals. We seek expression and acceptance. We want to define ourselves and communicate with our tribe members. But this new form of communication is somehow dehumanizing us, making us less real and less capable of face to face interaction - even adults. When we are physically with people, our minds are still somehow connected to what is happening on that small screen, and so we are never fully present, existing in what technology expert Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention,” never really focused on anything in an attempt not to miss anything.
Children today are growing up within this dichotomy. To them, there is nothing strange about it. They have not lived through the changes that we have seen and cannot have the perspective we do. But they still know they are being adversely affected by too much tech - both within themselves and with the adults in their lives.
In the book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, an expert on digital culture, explores how constant connection to the internet and all it’s forms of communication affects people, especially children. The teens she interviewed admitted they text while driving because they “have to.” One teen says if he hears his phone ring he has to answer it: “I don’t have a choice. I have to know who it is, what they are calling for.” Another says, “I keep the sound on when I drive. When a text comes in, I have to look. No matter what.” Several even said they got into accidents while walking, one of which resulted in a chipped tooth. In another section, she tells of the effects of parental phone obsession, of children wistful for a parent’s attention because, even if the parent is there physically, he or she isn’t really there mentally. Instead of parents who scroll through email while walking to the park or who message while vacationing at the beach, these children long for “the pleasure of full attention, coveted and rare.” How sad.
This state of connectivity is not going to go away, of course, nor should it. It is not the technology that is the problem. It is how and when we choose to use it. As parents, we must monitor ourselves as much as our children so as not to send mixed messages. And we must be realistic about the fact that texting-teens are the new norm. It really comes down to good old-fashioned manners in the end. They always apply - just in new ways. The most important thing is always to treat those who are present as if they are more important than those who are not. That hasn’t changed. However, if we expect our children to absorb this idea we must model it ourselves. How much of what we do on that phone is actually necessary? How much of it is self-created out of that obsession to “check in?” In teens, how much of texting is, as Turkle puts it, merely “jabbering with their thumbs.” How will our children ever learn that they are okay in and of themselves if they are always connected to their peers? I’m not sure. As an adult, I see things through my own prism of experience. I really can’t put myself in their shoes.
At the same time, as adults, we are inherently responsible to use our own prism of experience to help direct our children’s development. When having to put their foot down in the face of overly demanding coaches or too much homework, many parents explain it is their job to focus on “the whole child,” not just one particular facet. Ultimately, what is required, as in all things, is balance. Children who are well-socialized outside of the virtual world, who have many opportunities to focus their real-world attention on others, have much more control over their online social life, and a much greater chance for happiness in the future. After all, being well-spoken, having a strong handshake, steady eye-contact, and a confident personality are still considered necessary attributes for success. And being careful and respectful of how we treat others in the here and now can only help us in the future.
Recommended Reading: Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle The second half of this book is a fascinating look at the effects of social media on individuals, families and teens. The first half focuses on how robots are infiltrating our lives. Both aspects converge to show how the virtual and real are becoming blurred, especially regarding relationships. While sometimes extreme in her analysis, I still found the interviews and the author’s insights quite thought provoking. -GMS