I often take the bus around Charlottesville, when it’s raining or I’m too lazy to bike. I’ve noticed something on the bus, and actually, just about everywhere. You’ve probably noticed too. The phones. Everywhere. People are constantly looking down at their phones. I would guess around 8 out of 10 people sit and look at their phones while they’re involved in some other activity, whether that is riding the bus, walking, having dinner, or waiting in line. It’s pretty much an endless list. So many opportunities for genuine connection with others are lost this way. I’m guilty of this habit as well, but it is one I am working on Small Acts to manage.
I didn’t get my first cell phone until I got my first car. There wasn’t a real need prior to that, even though I wanted one because I thought it was “cool.” It was one of those blocky Nokia’s with the infamous snake game on it. Oh, how the technology has changed. I resisted getting an iPhone for several years because I didn’t want to be so absorbed by the virtual world. That too has changed, but I don’t upgrade every time a new option is available. I’m proudly sporting a 4S and will until I literally cannot use it anymore.
My sister is fourteen and she probably got her first phone at age ten. Smart phones, mini-computers basically, are so ubiquitous now, especially in the “developed” world, that young children are already addicted to them. I have seen very young kids, maybe around age two or three, throw tantrums when daddy takes his phone back. Kids will get them at younger and younger ages.
Let’s stop for a second
What is this doing to us? Why are we so addicted to our phones? I know there are countless studies, articles, and opinions already out there on this, but media is my passion and media is at the root of this behavior. We’re addicted to ourselves and to each other. We’re addicted to information, memes, selfies, and basically spending a lot of time judging each other and ourselves based others’ “approval” of our posts, photos, or videos.
We need approval. I believe we are trying to use social media as a way to feel loved, included, and connected to each other, but at what expense, and does it actually measure up to the real thing? We have dinner with a spouse, but we don’t talk, we just sit silently, each in our own digital world. Is being on your phone really that much more enjoyable than having a conversation with your partner, or does it say something about our attention spans for each other and relationships?
A missing piece
The world has changed. What is socially acceptable has changed. Technology has made communicating much much easier, but what are we really communicating? Where is the value in all this noise? Communicating via social sites, text, and email lacks an essential piece of communication: non-verbal communication. Only with facial expressions, gestures, verbal characteristics, such as tone of voice, (which we all know isn't conveyed through text very well), and even touch can we truly engage with each other on a human level. What messages are we sending, and what do they convey about our values as humans? What messages do we want future generations to look back on and learn? If there is no real value in it, then why do we do it?
What it comes down to is consumption. We’re consuming social media via our phones and tablets at an astonishing rate. In less than 10 years the percentage of all internet users who also use social media went from 8% in 1995 to 74% in 2014. New social sites are popping up every year. As we continue to produce and consume more media, the cycle continues and grows. We are addicted. Our kids see us stuck in these virtual worlds so they think they need to be there too, and they will be. They already are.
I think it also perpetuates the cycle of consumption in the real world, or maybe it's the other way around, and is perpetuated BY our real world consumption. It’s just a habit we’ve, almost unconsciously, grown into and adopted. If everyone consumed natural resources at U.S rates, we would need three to five planets to sustain ourselves (and this is a statistic from 2007). Something goes viral, then it’s over, on to the next one. The same mentality goes with fashion, phones, computers, and cars. There’s the latest and the greatest, and then there’s something newer and better.
I’m not proposing that we continue to share the “Charlie bit my finger" video forever and cease expressing our creative abilities. Social media is one of the most powerful tools man has created and can really catalyze powerful change in cultures and revolutions. It is a great way to share information and show support for causes. It’s a great tool to communicate with people from your past or old friends that live in different towns. However, most of our consumption is without limit or purpose. Why do we care so much about the latest cat meme? Are we really that bored with our real lives and the people in them that we feel we must escape it with silly nonsense on the Internet? Perhaps it is the desire that maybe, just maybe, our next "home video" will go viral, and we will get our fifteen minutes of Internet fame? Are we afraid of other people or afraid of being alone? It's time to get out of our comfort zones. Only then do we truly flourish and nurture the true spirit of growth and humanity.
Our media habits are mutating into something I think we will look back on and regret, but how do we stop that beast, and is it even possible? If you care, then yes, it is. All it takes is a couple Small Acts. Boundaries and choice. The same applies with all other obsessions. A boundary to resist the urge to check Facebook, reject someone on Tinder, or post a new vine while we’re at dinner with our family is a Small Act that slows down this cycle and can help ease our addiction to media and technology. Our resources are not limitless. Eventually the rare minerals required to produce an iPhone or laptop will run out. We might find more at the expense of habitats and forests, but those will run out too.
Boundaries can be a challenge to set and uphold, but they are key in making real change in habits and behavior. More than likely, our social media use has decreased our ability or desire to do so, which is all the more reason to practice this Small Act.
If I am with people, whether I know them or not, I try to stay off my phone. I try to resist the urge to even check the time. Sometimes I end up talking to those people on the bus and making new friends. Sometimes I just observe. Whatever I’m doing, I try to practice mindfulness and appreciation for the present moment. I am alive, I’m participating in this moment, I’m not trying to escape it, and that’s okay, that’s enough. There is a profound beauty in this stillness. I work on approving of myself. More importantly, what I do share when I choose to spend time on the Internet, has purpose, meaning, and value toward instigating positive change, in my opinion.
What about the next generation?
How will our future generations see themselves and treat our planet if their current example emphasizes the importance “look at me, I’m always on my new best phone, check out what this cat is doing” over “here’s how I’ve helped someone today or showed compassion?”