Do too many smartphones a dumb society make?

I didn’t intend for this to be such a long entry, but it all started with one article which got my brain going and before I knew it I was too wound up to stop with just one thought.

The article in question is ‘Are touchscreens melting your kids brain’ by Mat Honan of Wired:

Children today are surrounded by screen upon screen upon screen: second screens, third screens, screens on our wrists and even our faces. It’s not uncommon to have one in every room. Screen time—especially if you’re talking about touchscreens—is a perplexing issue all modern parents have to confront.

That’s just his opening paragraph, the rest of the article is very thought provoking, so go read it.

What Mat reveals in his thoughts are what I presume to be on every parent’s mind. HY and I also struggle with how much we should allow Ethan and Linus to interact with our touch screen devices. If an app teaches Ethan how to read — and recognise — his ABCs is it bad? Would it affect his brain the same way as watching Barney for 2 hours straight on the very same device?

I often overhear parents scolding their children for coveting the iPad perplexed that they would kick and fuss just to get their hands on it. The trouble is (and as Mat touches on very lightly at the end of his write up) it sort of mirrors the very same attitude that grown ups have towards their electronic ‘toys’.  Perhaps that’s why some of us are dual minded about introducing them to our kids.

But putting aside the entire debate on whether touchscreens are good for kids (or adults) I can’t help but ponder another separate problem this one entirely social that is just as important. I’m sure others have been observing and wondering the exact same thing.

I find that it’s become increasingly common to see entire families sitting down to dinner with each and every member of the family staring at either a phone (usually the adults) or a tablet (usually the kids). All of them gazing at outside information and apparently unaware of the others sitting right next to them, or perhaps willfully ignoring them. It’s also becoming the norm to see couples sitting on the bus holding hands but gazing in opposite directions at their lighted screens. Kids aren’t the only ones needing to be distracted to sit quietly, I find that I myself don’t allow myself the freedom to just observe and reflect when I’m queuing for my lunch because it’s just too darn tempting to take my phone out of my pocket and scan some RSS feeds for updates.

What happened to interaction at the dinner table?  What happened to having a conversation without interruptions? What happened to just plain being bored and allowing our minds to wander unguided by a stream of internet gibberish. Are we as a society that bored with the real world that we have to saturate our minds with games, media, the internet, and affirmations from our social sites?

The ubiquity of the electronic devices, small enough to fit in our pocket but powerful enough to give us a browsing experience like a computer has just made it so darn easy to consume information on the go. When I got the iPhone 3G in 2008 it was literally the most amazing and magical device I had ever seen. I would lie in bed and just be left speechless at the things I could do without even getting up. To this day no other piece of technology has been able to so powerfully affect me.

But the after effects were terrible. I couldn’t go to bed without doing something, anything, on my phone before I slept. If I somehow managed to forgot it on my way to work I felt extremely irritable and (for want of a better word) incomplete somehow without it. My brain started to change in ways as well. I became more forgetful as I was always jotting things down on the phone and not trying to remember them. It got harder for me to find my ways about places because I relied entirely on the maps to help me find my way around. I also became more impatient as every time I had a burning question or query I would immediately pull up my web browser to search for the answer. I felt like any geeky man would: I had the power of the internet at my fingertips.

All these advances in technology have had little effect on HY. She’s an old fashioned girl who appreciates hand written letters delivered by post as opposed to emails. She wasn’t impressed by my ability to give her answers to her questions on the spot and she resented that she had to compete with the iPhone for my attention.

Slowly but surely I’ve come to see the wisdom in her cool attitude towards all these devices and I’ve become less obsessed about them in general. They are after all just tools for me to master, not to be mastered by.

Now on weekends it’s common for me not to pick up my phone at all other than to send smses or to make phone calls.  I pay more attention to my wife and look at her face when I speak to her. I also give my attention to my boys when they are playing around me instead of giving them half hearted answers while I gaze at a screen. At dinner we make it a point that no toys or phones are on the table so that we can sit and enjoy a meal together without distractions or interruptions. And when we sit on the bus together we talk to our sons and get them to look around and observe the sights and sounds as we whiz by.

I’m not here to pass judgement on others. Truth be told not many people enjoy the lifestyle that I have and have the capacity to deal with lively energetic kids. In such a situation the tablet or phone is a last resort and can give some much needed respite. I also know that some jobs are just so mindnumbingly dull and boring that being given a phone that you can use to read and enrich your lives with beautiful prose is a wonderful thing. I’m not talking about situations like that.

What I wonder about is for those people who just don’t think and just react to their devices and become almost mindless slaves to them. Even the games that are flooding the app stores are becoming more crafty by tapping on our addictive natures to get consumers to play them for hours and hours. I also have numerous issues with Facebook and Twitter. Confined to a computer that’s fixed in one location they’re not too bad. But when you carry that same computer with you everywhere and can write stuff without even considering the ramifications in a split second I think that’s just a recipe for disaster. I fear for parents like that who then give over their kids to the same devices in essence okaying this behaviour and enslaving another generation.

We will see a huge backlash in the years to come and people will not stop blaming their devices that it was not their fault. That being exposed to this mindless onslaught of information day in day out somehow reduced their inability to engage with others or to think properly for themselves therefore causing them to do the things they did. I bet a common excuse for no handing in homework in the future will be that my tablets battery died because the dog ate it.

What we need are clear boundaries. It’s the same when it comes to playing video games, reading books, having too much candy, alcohol or even working. Consume too much too often and without interruption and you will get cranky when you have to stop. Real life was not meant to be focused on one thing all the time without the consideration of others around us. God made us to be social beings and to love and serve one another but the prince of this world is constantly throwing things in our face to make us forget about others and instead focus on ‘me’ all the time.

So to adults, mind your time with your devices, unplug for a while, enjoy relationships because  those are timeless and important. Don’t shy away from necessary confrontations and retire to your devices instead, be bold and live a life which is full and rewarding. It’s after all the only life you can live and no one can be held accountable for how you lived it except yourself.

Parents, be mindful of what attitudes you are inculcating in your children. If you covet these electronics so will your children. Instead expose your kids to everything, sports, natures, books, art, music, caring for others and helping out at home. Don’t let them get so fixed on one thing but enjoy how full life can be in it’s myriad of experiences. Perhaps the problem is that we are so fixated on our time for ourselves that we forget to give something more meaningful to our children and technology is used as a substitute instead. Don’t do that… that’s just sad.

So there you go, what started with a simple article became a huge rant and I’m not sure what kind of conclusion. I just want to point out that everything that I write here on this blog always points squarely back at me. So even though I can come across as preachy by the things that I write here I’m just want to say that I’m not perfect and I personally struggle with these things as well.

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