Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and my relationship with it. I recently attended an amazing lecture by Dr. Catherine Steiner about the impact technology is having on our societies, families and especially our children. You see, we didn’t grow up with parents who had smartphones. So, we don’t really know what it’s like to be children growing up in today’s world nor fully grasp its impact on our kids. To me, it’s honestly a bit scary imagining a future where we all walk around aimlessly like zombies glued to our screens. It has already been shocking to see how quickly and widely technology has changed our culture and how we relate and interact with each other and the world around us. More and more we find ourselves moving through our day without paying attention to our surroundings and others and as a result not being fully present in anything we do.
We have become a society obsessed with documenting and sharing everything we do. We all do it. I’m practicing yoga and think “Oh! I should record this. It’s so awesome!“ I’m eating a beautiful and delicious meal with friends and immediately think, “Oh! I need to take a picture of this!” Snap. Share.
We are obsessed with filling every moment and every gap “catching up” or staying up to speed on the continuous messages and information coming our way. I’ll pick up my child from school and say to myself, “Oh! Great time to catch up on a call in the car.” Meanwhile, our kid just sits there patiently while dying to tell us about his day. We’ve all been there. We take the kids to the park and we instinctually just pull out our phones. Perfect time to catch up on emails, right? These stories and scenes go on and on. It’s non-stop.
These devices, which are undoubtedly convenient, useful and save us so much time if used properly, are also turning us into extremely anxious people. We are in constant competition comparing ourselves and our lives to others and the lives they choose to present to the online world. The devices have created this need in us to always be connected and available. People check their phones an average of 60-200 times a day! Whether unconsciously or consciously, we have developed the feeling of not wanting to miss out (FOMO) and in the process, sadly, completely neglect what is happening right in front of our own eyes. We neglect the people that are right here. Tangible. Real. Not in the screen in some other place.
And then, always on-going, there is our obsession with selfies. What’s it all about and why has it not gone away yet? When will we get sick of taking pictures of ourselves at all times, in every situation and every place? This absurd fascination and feeding of the ego, the “I”, the need to share every moment we live through because we need constant validation. Where is this coming from? We’ve all become professional stalkers, superficial validation-givers and seekers. But why? Why do we need a constant global thumbs up? What are we looking for when we dive into our screens? Is it approval? People to like us? To feel important? Loved? To boost our self-worth, confidence? A soft caress? A warm touch to cover our loneliness?
Just like taking a pill or a shot of liquor, I guess, we are just trying to escape our reality instead of facing it. We as humans have been doing this since the beginning of time. Our smartphones are just another form of distraction. But the screen is so empty. It doesn’t fill any of our voids. It creates more. I am too fouled by this trap. Every time I retreat to it as a way of feeling more connected and loved I feel exactly the opposite. Sure, it sugarcoats my anxiety and loneliness for a little while but then I go back to feeling even emptier. Shallower and bleak. Just how I felt when I used to buy tabloid magazines with their flawless women on the cover, seemingly perfect celebrity lives on the inside and endless list of products I need to buy to be both beautiful and happy. Inside the screen, like in the magazines, there is nothing that I need. Nothing that makes me feel good. I don’t feel a warm hand caressing me, a wet kiss or a good old hug from a friend that will make all my pain go away.
Instead, studies have shown that since 2012, people are feeling more lonely, children feel sadder and angrier and suicide rates in teens have gone up. Much of this is because we don’t feel heard. We feel ignored. There always seems to be something more important on our screens than connecting to the people in our real lives. When I go to my son's basketball game and I look around, I notice how many parents are glued to their screens. Of course! Why wouldn’t they be? It’s the perfect time to catch up on emails and texts, right? In the meantime, they completely ignore what is happening with their children on the court. How do you think that makes our children feel? For them to glance over at the sidelines and see us looking down at our phones? How would you feel if that was you? How would you feel if you looked over at your dad after making a great shot hoping he’d noticed and was proud but instead seeing he was too busy typing to notice?
I remember my basketball games vividly when I was a child. My parents came to every game cheering and shouting at every play. They were completely engaged and gave me their full undivided attention. I loved that. Of course it embarrassed me sometimes but it was a good feeling knowing they cared. I remember that so strongly because it made me feel loved and important. It felt like my life mattered to them. Isn’t that why we have children? To give them attention, to care for them, to make them feel secure and loved? We don’t have children just so we can hand them an iPad to calm them as soon as they get fussy just because we can’t be bothered to soothe them. We don’t have children because we want them to be quiet little robots in the back of the car so we can make an “important call”, check “one last email” when we get home or check our Instagram to see who liked us or how many followers we gained in the last 4 hrs. Is that really all that important? More than our connection with our children, their sense of belonging, of being heard, and soothed?
Of course that’s not why we have children but we are doing this constantly often without realizing anymore. These devices are as addictive as a drug. They are designed to get us hooked. Neurologically speaking, they trigger the same receptors as crack. Much of what we are doing online releases dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers which in turn feeds us and creates an obsession with instant gratification. It reinforces a pleasure-seeking culture.
So, when we give our child a smartphone or iPad to distract them or quiet them, we are giving our child a stimulant as a coping mechanism as opposed to what they really need which is human soothing and even self-soothing. They need to develop the tools to cope with frustration. They need to develop patience and the ability to calm themselves. They need to be bored so they can develop their imagination and their creativity. They don’t always need to be stimulated. They need the time and opportunity to develop the tools to self-regulate. These are tools they’ll use in their adult life. The same goes for us adults.
We need to be looking out the window and noticing the tree changing leaves, the snow falling, the clouds in the sky, the light pouring through the window warming our bodies, a bird’s song, the mailman or the barista at the coffee shop. We need to be quiet enough so we can listen to our inner voice. So we can find confidence and tap into our own power that lies inside of us, not a power that is built on outside approval and a self-worth based on the number of likes and followers or on a a very shallow, superficial, online, curated, filtered image.
We need to be connecting with one another more and looking into each other’s eyes rather than down. We should be talking to the receptionist, the taxi driver, or the person next to you on the subway. But we are so glued to our devices and lost in our own little worlds that we completely neglect the people we walk by as we move through our lives distracted, absent and numb like zombies.
Yesterday I decided to not check my phone from the evening through the morning until after my classes. That one simple act immediately opened me up to what and who was around me. Almost instantly I had some beautiful encounters. Instead of pulling out my phone the second I got into a cab to catch up with what everyone else is doing, I talked to the taxi driver. He was an African man. Very kind. Beautiful smile. Hates the cold! So do I. We have something in common. How simple, yet how fulfilling. My body relaxed, my heart softened, my anxieties dropped and I felt warm, light and elevated after our simple exchange. Did you know that studies on longevity say that people who live longer are not those who have “perfect” lives, ripped bodies, eat kale and avocado toasts all day, are vegan, gluten-free, healthy, fit people? In fact, the people that live the longest are those who have strong interpersonal relationships and have strong connections with family, community, and friends.
Why am I writing all this? I write it as a personal reflection and to keep myself in check. I write to reevaluate this important element that has permeated our lives so quickly and continues to take us over in ways we’re not completely sure of yet. What we do know is that it is changing the way we act, react and connect with one another. At its worst, it isolates us, affects our mental health and personal relationships with ourselves, our children, friends, family and the whole world around us. If left unchecked, it makes us more self-centered, selfish, egocentric, materialistic, shallow, grumpier, lonelier, unhappy, anxious, depressed, less patient, less present and empathetic and more detached from what is real.
Yes, of course there are so many wonderful things about technology which have only made our lives better but it’s imperative we remain aware of its side effects and approach it with great mindfulness. It has become even more important to stop ourselves frequently and consider how we are using these devices. Are we using them as tools for learning, connecting and growing? Are we using them to be our best selves?
I leave you with a great quote by Martin Luther King:
"You call your thousand material devices labor saving machinery, yet you are forever busy. With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have you want more and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else. Your devices are neither time saving nor soul saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.”
Some suggestions on controlling technology
Set clear limits on technology for you and your family.
- Have open an dialogue and communication about technology with your family.
· Perhaps no technology after 5 or 6pm at home on school nights? Instead engage with each other. I know this is case-by-case but find a balance that what works for you and your family. Create a family contract and let everyone in the household add their own rules. You will be surprised with what your kids come up with!
· Absolutely NO technology during meals for everyone. No exceptions!
· Wait until the 8th grade to give children a smartphone.
· No devices in the bedroom (use an alarm clock instead of your phone or keep your phone in airplane mode with no wifi on while sleeping)
· Set limits on your social media engagement per day. Allow yourself an hour a day total. No need to check it every 20 minutes!
· Don’t respond to work emails on the weekend assuming your job allows it. (Most do unless it’s a REAL emergency.)
· Don’t be on the phone when picking up your kids or when it’s your time together.
· Leave the phone behind when you go out to dinner. Try it, it’s liberating!
· Leave the phone behind when you take your kids to the park or zoo. Try being present. You don’t need to document every moment. I’m willing to bet you never look on the thousand pictures you’ve taken. Keep it in your mind. Practice being present, fully.
If you are interested in learning more, here are some great resources: