How many times every day do you find yourself visiting with a friend or a family member and you feel like their phone or other electronic device is more important to them than you are? How often do you find yourself in a one-on-one or a group setting and the other person or individuals immediately pick up their phone with every chirp, beep, or ring-tone they emit? We have a society that is increasingly less humanly social, and have in some distorted way, become less connected sociologically and emotionally, and more isolated, precisely because of the electronic connectivity that has come to dominate our culture.
The smartphone is well on its way to creating a socially dumb society. According to eMarketer from a study completed last year, Americans now spend more time on their smartphones and other electronic devices than they do with anything else. The average American now spends over five hours every day tinkering, playing with, responding to, and interacting with their digital devices. Such over-reliance on electronic gadgets has now eclipsed watching TV as the single-most over-indulged time hog of the average American’s daily schedule.
A CNN story last year calculated that by the time teens reach middle school, they text nearly 3,500 times a month, and spend more time with electronic media than they do with their parents or teachers. The report stated, “The impact of heavy media and technology use on kids’ social, emotional and cognitive development is only beginning to be studied, and the emergent results are serious. While the research is still in its early stages, it suggests that the Internet may actually be changing how our brains work. Too much hypertext and multimedia content has been linked in some kids to limited attention span, lower comprehension, poor focus, greater risk for depression and diminished long-term memory.
“Our new world of digital immersion and multitasking has affected virtually everything from our thought processes and work habits to our capacity for linear thinking and how we feel about ourselves, our friends and even strangers. And it has all happened virtually overnight.”
And that barely scratches the surface in terms of the social ineptitude fostered by such overt dependency on electronic devices. It’s virtually impossible to sit in a family, business, or even mealtime setting without someone being glued to their phones rather than visiting, interacting with, or communicating with the others who are present. The clear signal, via body language, is that the device, and whoever is texting or messaging on the other end of the digital conversation, is much more important than the living, breathing, cognitive beings in the room with them!
Rachel Macy Stafford was a young wife and mother who had an epiphany of sorts. She realized that her children, and other important people in her life, were being short-changed by the attention and devotion she paid to her smartphone. She started maintaining a blog of her observations and “confessions” of her own overuse of digital media.
One reader of her blog sent an email to her that was seismic in its impact. The reader said, “I can recall a time when you were out with your children you were really with them. You engaged in a back and forth dialog even if they were pre-verbal. You said, ‘Look at the bus, see the doggie, etc.’ Now I see you on the phone, pushing your kids on the swings while distracted by your devices. You think you are spending time with them but you are not present really. When I see you pick up your kids at day care while you’re on the phone, it breaks my heart. They hear your adult conversations. What do they overhear? What is the message they receive? I am not important; I am not important.”
On her blog, Handsfreemama.com, (and in her book by the same name) she has listed a series of introspective statements on “How to Miss a Childhood.” For those who have children at home, this is a real eye-opener. But to all of us, regardless of age or familial composition, the messaging is poignant with regard to our most treasured relationships.
She says that if you want to miss your children’s childhood, “Keep your phone turned on at all times of the day. Allow the rings, beeps, and buzzes to interrupt your child midsentence; always let the caller take priority.”
“Carry your phone around so much that when you happen to leave it in one room your child will come running with it proudly in hand—treating it more like a much needed breathing apparatus than a communication device.”
“Decide the app you’re playing is more important than throwing the ball in the yard with your kids. Even better, yell at them to leave you alone while you play your game.”
“While you wait for the server to bring your food or the movie to start, get out your phone and stare at it despite the fact your child sits inches away longing for you talk to him.”
After listing many more such examples, the author concludes: “Follow this recipe and you will have: missed opportunities for human connection, fewer chances to create beautiful memories, lack of connection to the people most precious to you, inability to really know your children and them unable to know you, and overwhelming regret.”
If we are to avoid becoming a socially inept and illiterate society, we must learn to use our electronic devices not as proxy relationships, but as tools to broaden and enlarge our human experience, and with a sense of temporal balance, rather than as our veritable raison d’être or center of our existence. Perhaps it’s time to reintroduce social etiquette into our school’s curricula, before our anti-social behavior unravels our last few remaining threads of humanity.
Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].