“Babe, can you put your phone away for a minute? I am trying to talk to you.”
We have probably said this. We have all probably had this said to us. Some of us are digital natives — we grew up glued to a screen. Some of us are digital immigrants, awkwardly attached to our devices like scrambling-to-keep-up voyeurs.
If we took a Google picture of Earth from space at any time of day, we would see millions of stick figures hunched over tiny flickering boxes, as if their lives depended on it.
The once evolutionary imperative for humans to walk upright is now solidly threatened. Follow this hunched bending pose for centuries and we most certainly will become large-headed, folded-up creatures, with eye features, or apparatus, built to stare into tiny, incessant glare. All of this is in the name of being more rapidly connected to everyone, at all times.
There is no doubt that our devices have brought us previously inconceivable delights: instant information, free international contact, selfies, endless streaming arts and music and stories, human rights activism, and dazzling computation and creativity. The costs, however, cannot even be properly calculated. Our engagement is so frenzied and metastatic that we cannot possibly pace observation and research to keep up with the dizzying growth of usage and multiplying types of use.
What we know for sure is that as a society, we are fatter, lonelier, substantially more medicated, more self-harming, suffering more neck and back pain, and more anxious or depressed. What we know for sure is that our attention spans are shrinking.
Screenagers ages 11-18, who have been nursed with screens in their parent’s free hand, demonstrate what I would call a “remote participation” in their own and each other’s lives. It is as if everything that happens to them or others is viewed on a flat screen and evaluated as “ready for posting.” This produces teens and adults too who are hyperaware of being watched and watching. This often translates into a particularly heightened self-involved consciousness mediated by a constant analysis of “net worthiness.” What are the consequences of young people who grow up being “snapped” for every occasion?
The other day I was facilitating a teen group and one of the teens shared a horrific assault that had just happened. I was astonished to see that not one of the other 15 teenagers reached out to respond. Their reactions looked much like a group photo of folks watching a disturbing movie: mouths were in varying degrees of open and eyes stretched wide.
There was no offering of hugs or Kleenex. There were no guttural sounds of empathy or even any words of support. The thought hit me that they would know just what emoji or acronym to use if they could be texting their response. When I queried them, it wasn’t that they did not have empathy or feeling for their peer, it was that they just couldn’t access it without a “screen in between.” Their social instincts had atrophied from lack of in-person use.
The good news is that teens are flocking to our programs at AHA! (www.ahasb.org) where the screens are put away and the entire curriculum focuses on social and emotional skills and genuine contact. They are actually yearning for this type of presence and interaction.
Recently, after one of our exercises in authentic contact and sharing, Malcolm, age 15, said, “I don’t even know how to describe this feeling I am having. It is like feeling really alive for the first time.”
Stalling the rampant expansion of “The Machine” may prove futile; however, we can support a parallel movement to put away the devices and truly connect with one another. It’s not too late to offer an alternative to being plugged in, but massively numb and disconnected. Let’s teach ourselves and our children to stand up straight again, to look at each other kindly with both our hearts and our eyes. Let’s create a world in which a screen doesn’t create a barrier between living a full, meaningful life and ourselves.