I have a growing concern about the impact of social media and connected devices (especially smart phones) on our attention and psychological well-being.
I’m concerned for myself, and I’m especially concerned for our kids, who are entering an unprecedented period of connectedness. I feel we don’t fully understand the impact, yet we’re forcing it upon ourselves and our children with little hesitation.
Sherry Turkle, a professor and psychologist at MIT, is perhaps the biggest advocate when it comes to surfacing the negative impact of digital connectedness. In a recent analysis in the New York Times, she emphasizes the loneliness that ensues:
Think of it as “I share, therefore I am.” We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we’re having them. We used to think, “I have a feeling; I want to make a call.” Now our impulse is, “I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text.”
So, in order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves. Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don’t experience them as they are. It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves.
We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.
It makes me wonder: if someone is not able to be alone, then is that person less capable of introspection and deep thought?
Likely, and that is troubling.
(Photo: Ed Yourdon)
I think Ms. Turkle makes some valid points. On a recent visit to my home in Costa Rica, my youngest child—a teen—complained that he was experiencing boredom. That caught me by surprise. How could he be bored in paradise? Worse, am I, his father, that much of a dud that I would cause these feelings? I think not, as I am still as able-bodied as him, and we swam and hiked and rode ATVs and river rafted. Maybe he would like to just veg out on my hammock by himself and let his body and brain rest, save for those introspective thoughts you mention, Max. “OMG no,” he responded, noting that he would be even “more bored” doing nothing.
In other words, the luxury and elusive nature of what I enjoy most these days—solitude—is a horrific concept to my son. His cell phone would not work in Costa Rica and I purposely kept him off my computer. The social withdrawal pains were obvious. He’s grown up in an ever-connected world and craves the stimulation he gets from being socially connected on the web and in the flesh with his friends.
It’s peculiar. We had several good father/son dialogs when he was here, mostly when we went out to get some food, but I’ve noticed that since his return to California, our conversations via What’s App have actually been more frequent and in depth. Now he wants to know how soon he can come back to Costa Rica—presumably to experience the luxury of boredom again. Oh, and by chance could I get him an iPhone that will work in Costa Rica? . .
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bruce. I wonder how long I can keep my kids “pure”. They’re nearly four and five. I’m beginning to think that learning how to be alone, focus, and block distractions are the most important skills any modern human can learn.
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