Thursday, May 8, 2014

Take a Moment and Put the Phone Down

For the final assignment of our International Relations/American Thought course, my team teacher and I asked all of our students to write and video their own TED Talk.  The students were to choose an issue near and dear to them, research the topic thoroughly, give a 5-7 minute presentation that they would videotape, and then share it with the class. As is so often true with adolescents, they complained about the assignment, and then did an excellent job.  They chose topics ranging from how the increasing cost of a college education will freeze out the middle class to the power of social media in bringing down corrupt governments or dictators.

One student’s presentation focused on how technology is altering how we relate to one another and to ourselves. According to this young woman, our smart phones and social media are rendering us less courageous in our social interactions with others and are stultifying our personal development.  As much as one might expect to hear this from people in an older generation, it was surprising, dare I say heartening, to hear these ideas voiced by someone who is under 20 years old.

Her presentation was supported by this linked clip sent to me the other day.  In a somewhat overly sentimental format, the videographer asks us to imagine how much richer our lives might be if we put down our phones; concomitantly, the video forces us to consider how much poorer our futures could be if we remain connected to our devices.  The thesis of the video is that we are missing out on interpersonal connections when we spend all of our time on electronic devices; we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we’re connected to others when in fact we’re more isolated and alone than ever.

I remember when my wife joined Facebook and she was deciding who to friend, including people she had not heard from in years. A very close personal friend of ours made a Facebook request to her, and she asked me whether she should accept it. We laughed later, but at the time, I was incredulous. Yes, I said, he really is a friend of yours, and she said, of course.  We bemoaned how both the word and the notion of friendship has changed in our cyber inter-connected world.

Although most teens I know spend an amazing amount of time on their phones and their laptops, I am hearing more and more that they’re reconsidering the benefits of social media sites. They realize that many times what people post can come back to haunt them, and they know that the unintended consequences of their Facebook updates may prevent them from being accepted to the college they wish to attend, receiving the scholarship they need, or securing the job they must have.  The parent letter I wrote this week quoted from a recent article in the DailyWorth entitled “Should I Not Have Posted That?”  (Click here to read Bosque e-Newsletter parent letter)

Quite a few of the teens I’ve spoken to lately know they should spend less time online.  They are smart enough to realize that if they’re on their computer or phone all the time, they are missing opportunities right in front of them. Some have begun to participate in a ritual where they all place their phones in a pile in the center of the table when they’re eating out together, and the first one to reach for the phone has to pay the bill for everyone.  Similarly, I have heard many high school and college students say, “Facebook is such a waste of time.”

However, they still find putting their phones down difficult when so much of their lives revolves around the latest information that is available.  As adults, we may not be any different than our children, but we may need to change our habits if we want them to alter theirs.  One of the videos in our students’ TEDTalks showed parents on their phones while sitting with their very young children.  As you can imagine, students in the class were very sad as they watched the video and pondered the consequences.  I am as guilty as anyone of constantly checking my devices; nevertheless, if I wish my children to experience life beyond the device, I need to change my habits. As with breaking any bad habit, it will not be easy. But who knows--it could be good for me, and even better for my children.  Our tech destiny is not set in stone, and if we have the desire, we can change it.