Dear Students on Social Media: How Do You Manage?

Hello, young folk. If you are a student in high school or university, have a smartphone with one or more social media accounts, and are passing your courses, then let me say: my hat is off to you. If you are excelling, then I am fully impressed.

social-media-apps-old-fashioned

Here’s why. I am kinda old. Specifically, I’m thirty-nine, not so many months away from forty. This means that I was young in a different time. I was already in my 20s when Facebook became a thing. I was several years into my career when the first iPhone came out.

Before that, there was just email. And even that didn’t really get going until I was in university. I did my first emails in crowded computer labs on campus, on terminals with only amber displays. When I moved into a house with my friends, we had dial-up internet that would disconnect when someone picked up the phone. (Of course we all shared a landline because none of us had cell phones.) I did all my school research… in BOOKS. I didn’t even have access to a computer of my “own” (a laptop borrowed from my dad) until I did my Masters degree. It was as heavy as a dictionary and looked like an attaché case.

When I was in high school, there wasn’t even that stuff. We had a family desktop computer on which we could type things, make birthday cards, and play Wheel of Fortune (yes, Vanna White was amber and each of her applauding hands was three giant pixels). Social media was… um… the phone. Attached to the wall. The kind where someone could pick up the extension in another room and yell at you to get off the phone already.

Relating all of this, I feel ancient. The funny thing is, if you get to be thirty-nine years old, you will realize how short a time span it really is. And my age places me in a uniquely-positioned generation – young enough to be inclined to use social media, but old enough to remember what it was like before such platforms existed. (In fact, HuffPost says I am a “Xennial” – of the micro-generation born between 1977 and 1983. I am VERY SPECIAL so you should keep reading.)

These days, knowledgeable people are always saying things like, “Devices are the way of the future. Get used to it. There’s no use fighting it. Kids will have to know how to do everything on screens, might as well get them started now.”

I can see why people say this. The shift has been swift and thorough. A lot of my own life is conducted via either my smartphone or my laptop. With my teaching, committee work, and group-based hobbies, not to mention my social life, the ability to communicate online is very important. My students, likewise, are expected to start typing at least some of their school assignments and navigating the internet by the junior grades (4-6). I’m sure that you, the young adults, use your devices for all sorts of very valid reasons, both academic and social.

But then there’s device-use so pervasive that it’s like breathing: i.e. alternate ways of being don’t even enter the picture. Last year, when the Toronto District School Board blocked Snapchat, Instagram, and Netflix for its students, many were aghast; some claimed the grinding-to-a-halt of social life, communication in general, and even some school assignments. (Srsly? Netflix for school assignments?) And then, of course, many started using VPNs to get around the security.

I found this very upsetting.  Not the VPNs – that’s just ingenuity and problem-solving at work. But I pondered the stress + distraction level inherent in smartphone use, and thought to myself, How on earth do they get anything done?

As I said, my generation straddles the pre- and post- microcomputer eras. I can tell you these things for sure about life since smartphones and wi-fi:

  • large chunks of my life are spent on email;
  • my inbox is an overflowing source of stress;
  • the internet has shortened my attention span;
  • my smartphone has shortened it still further;
  • the combination of stress and lack of focus have made me less nice and less effective at LIFE.

I wish I were exaggerating or kidding here, but I’m not. My inability to concentrate through the entirety of an article, even one I’m choosing to read for interest, is VERY OBVIOUS to me. My brain thinks of other things to wonder or do or check, or my phone interrupts me, and I can’t/don’t ever finish. And this is with very few of my notifications turned on, and I’m already avoiding half of the typical social media apps. This distraction, I’ve recently realized, makes me grumpy.

When I was in university, my brain was different. And thank goodness it was, because I honestly don’t think I could have made it through with the brain I have now. I definitely couldn’t have researched and written my 75-page paper for my Masters in French lit. That required a huge amount of focus that I honestly no longer possess.

Am I sad about my brain? YES. My brain does not want to be all distracted and flighty. It was happier when it could sink into an activity and be fully present the whole time. (Hence the grumpiness.)

That’s not all that occurs to me when I ponder your situation. The other thing that makes me sad is the thought of anyone’s social lives being so dependent on smartphones that they feel disempowered and unmoored without Snapchat and Instagram.

Because none of that is real life.

Somewhere, deep in your soul, you know this. Interaction on social media feels very real when you’re immersed in it – and unfortunately, the damage and pain it can cause is all too real. But online communication is not what being a human is about. It is too affected, too manufactured.

We all know that selfies are highly contrived. They don’t show the true beauty of the subject. Prepared, positioned, posed – they don’t look how we really look. (One more reason I could never survive in the millennial habitat: I’ve never been particularly photogenic, but I’m terrible at selfies. I just get annoyed.)

In the same vein, text conversations are nothing like in-person conversations, because  they are not spontaneous. It’s too easy to pick apart and analyze every word – both as sender and receiver. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good text conversation and some well-chosen emoji(s), but that can never replace a face-to-face exchange. They are two completely different forms of communication.

The immediacy of social (im)media is also false. We know we have to tweet things RIGHT WHEN THEY’RE HAPPENING or no one will read them… If I haven’t commented on that photo instantly, it’s no longer relevant… If I break my Snapstreak, I will have failed… And if I don’t have dozens of Likes on my post within the hour, it falls off the radar. NO. Nothing that is of real value in life expires that quickly. The urgency is fabricated.

Things people say in online forums are also not real – because people are meaner online. I don’t know why this has to be true, but it is. When sitting with a screen for company and nobody to look in the eye, people (even people much older than you who are raising kids and should absolutely know better) say unconscionable things to other human beings. ALL THE TIME.

All of this is not real human life – but it can become so. The stress and lost social skills are catching up with us. Like Spiderman’s Venom, our unintentionally evil alter egos are slowly staining our true souls. The rudeness, the non-filtering, the self-obsession – it’s all bleeding into everyday life. Just this morning I was walking behind a teenage girl, accompanied by a teenage guy, on their way to school, and heard her yell super-bitchy-like at a motorist (who was waiting to turn right because the pedestrians had the right-of-way), “Just GO!! Sheesh!!!” like there could be nothing more insufferable than someone who abides by the rules of the road and/or uses manners.

Folks. There’s no excuse for that. If we leave our manners behind, we can no longer call ourselves civilized.

I’m not saying our app-filled devices have no place in the real world. I know social media is (are) fun – obviously that’s what hooks us in the first place. These gadgets are also helpful, convenient, and sometimes very efficient. It’s true as well that there are meaningful, important, and even beautiful exchanges that happen on those same platforms. But I am of the pre/post generation, so I can tell you this from personal experience: REAL LIFE IS BETTER.

When I was in high school and university, there were lots of things that brought me genuine joy. For example:

  • Playing music or singing with a group of friends
  • Getting hard-earned praise from a teacher on an assignment
  • Dancing my butt off to my favourite music
  • Talking to a boy I had a crush on
  • Seeing friends or family that lived far away
  • Being a good listener for a friend who needed me
  • Finishing a job I worked hard on
  • Cuddling a pet
  • Running with all my strength to reach the frisbee/soccer ball
  • Getting a handwritten letter from a loved one (this kept me alive when I went abroad!)
  • Seeing something truly beautiful that moved me
  • Hanging out with little kids and hearing them say cute things
  • Laughing so hard I could barely breathe
  • Being outside on a gorgeous day
  • Spending time with friends and family and remembering why I loved them.

Those are essentially the same things that made me happy as a child – and they are same things that make me happy now. They probably sound quaint and/or cheesy, like a meme that makes you roll your eyes. But they’re REAL. The happy chemicals that flood our bodies when we do these things are the ones we’re meant to have, the ones that make us healthier. The chemicals we get from playing Candy Crush (or whatever) are unnatural, because those games are designed to overstimulate and create an addiction.

I know that we can have reasonable online facsimiles of things on that list. We can Like beautiful images online, make someone else smile with a picture or a comment, watch those cat videos that make us laugh really hard. I have had all of those experiences on social media. But it is not the same. Humans were built to be with their people. To be close to them, to hear each other’s voices in the air between them, and to see each other’s expressions change in real time.

To those who say we should just lean in to tech because it’s inevitably going to take over, I say: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My deep feeling is that someday we will look back on this era as one of disease. Addiction to gadgets and apps is like alcoholism – the actual content in moderation is not that harmful, but when you’re constantly consuming, your system is overloaded and becomes ill.

There are many studies noting a correlation between screen time and declining mental health, especially among young people not so different from you. If you look it up, you might be stunned at the number of YouTubers who have died by suicide in the last ten years. (Or it might be no surprise at all – but still a tragedy.)

And I’m not sure you ever really had a choice about this. Your formative years have been shaped by social media, and at this moment, it’s just how things are done. As easy as it would be for me to advise, “Reject the insanity of social media! UNSUBSCRIBE! FIGHT THE POWER!” I know that’s not something easily done, and probably not what you want. No one wants to ostracize oneself. High school and university are hard enough without putting yourself outside the hive.

Of course, I’m lucky. As a grown-up, I’ve realized that Being Yourself actually does exist. There really does come a time when (as long as your job allows it) you can invest your time and energy in the things and ways of being that matter to YOU. It’s very liberating to say, “I’m almost forty. I don’t have to keep up with the latest fashions/hashtags/Top 40/Netflix originals, because that’s not what life is about. I can wear/listen to/watch/care about what suits ME.” Peer pressure has much, much less influence on my adult life than it did on my youth.

But as I try to navigate the current tech-driven world in a conscious way, I am starting to resent how much of my time corporations are deliberately taking from me. I recently followed my husband’s advice and unsubscribed from almost every organization that was emailing me things – including many things I signed up for on purpose – because they are OVERWHELMING.  I swear there were like twenty different things – and lots of those were emailing me more than once a day. Come. ON. When I thought about it, it made me mad because that is MY TIME I’m losing. Even if I never open those emails, they take time to delete and/or they obscure the messages that matter more (i.e. messages from real people I actually know).

Along the same lines, my husband recently made the radical move away from his smartphone to a flip phone, because he knows he’s too susceptible to the tricks companies use to hook us. Lots of research goes into the colours and animations that draw us in most and make it so that we can’t leave our phones alone. Our quality of life goes down because we’re not present – we’re not fully listening – we’re not able to give our full attention to anything. And our poor children have to deal with distracted parents. No wonder kids are forming habits of talking really loud and repeating themselves.

If you’ve read this far, you are an inspiration and a rock star. I don’t think I could have gotten through this whole rant (if I hadn’t written it).

I have had several conversations recently with my generational peers, and we agree: we are worried about your health. If you can stand a few more words, I’ll leave you with this advice, from the Xennials to the Digital Natives:

  1. Make sure you’re aware of when you’re being manipulated, and decide for yourself if it’s worth it. Know that each of the social media platforms is competing with you for your time and attention, which are extremely valuable. Do they deserve it? Be certain that you’re using them, and not vice versa.
  2. Make sure you having lots of really real life, as an antidote to the digital world. Put your phone out of reach for a while. Play some soccer in the mud. Be a sympathetic listener for someone having a rough time. Get together with friends for old-fashioned board games. Hug a person you love. Be real more often than you are digital.
  3. Don’t be on your phone in class. I know everyone’s doing it, but trust me. No human can take in knowledge properly while on their phone.
  4. And if you haven’t already, please turn on NightShift on your iPhone, or install f.lux (or Redshift, or Sunset Screen, etc. etc.) to make the light from your device a warmer colour that won’t strain your eyes and keep you awake WAY past your bedtime.

Thank you for reading, and very best of luck to you.

Now here’s one brilliant piece of online art to make us all feel better. *insert ironic emoji*

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Calling for Love in the Age of Global Bullying

The dust is settling. We know it’s not just a bad dream. The unthinkable has come to pass. That Trump dude is now the US President-Elect… and I think I’ve figured out why.

I don’t mean why in terms of the Electoral College (which I make no claim to understand), or in terms of voter turnout (though there’s never been more strident proof that votes do count), or even in terms of the popularity of the two candidates.

Nope, I’m talking about the overarching, cosmic reason why Trump had to win. It’s because he and his supporters could not have reasonably handled a loss. Winning is their only chance to learn something.

My Hubbibi, in the golden days of Before the Election, used to say, “What’s he gonna do when he loses? He bases his whole life on being a winner! His head will implode,” and things to that effect. We know that the whole Trump side was completely prepared to learn nothing from losing, because they would bask in the vitriolic certainty that the system was rigged.

I don’t want to talk about Trump himself, or his supporters. We have all borne witness, for seemingly ever, to the kinds of ugliness they were zealously proud to broadcast and to validate in each other. But we can all envision the shape that ugliness would have taken, given “LOSING A RIGGED ELECTION” as a reason to explode. I’m confident that it would have been awful. That people would have reacted in deeply regrettable ways. And ol’ Donald would have kept on being himself.

Right now, great swathes of people around the globe are grieving about this. Little kids, even. Here in my town, lots of my students are talking about it, expressing desolation and worry. (One greeted me first thing in the morning with an only-slightly-joking “Mme Stephens! We’re all gonna die!!”) None of us, anywhere, is unaffected by this.

It’s painful mourning. I have been grieving especially for the compassionate, intelligent, critically-thinking, inclusive, rational Americans who are now to be represented by a man who purposefully epitomizes the very worst of American stereotypes. To you, I offer deepest condolences that you have to say goodbye to a president you can be proud of, and exchange him for the winningest loser of all. I’m sorry you’re obliged to be in the petri dish of his attempts at leadership – because, for good reason, we are picturing a grotesque macrocosm of his f*cked-up Twitter feed.

And here’s where the learning opportunities happen for Trump’s supporters. This guy’s potential for screwing up is that much more epic when he’s President, as opposed to just a regular megalomaniac. And I have the openness of mind to imagine that it might even be possible for Trump himself to learn something of the world outside of his man-cave of a mind. At the very least, they’ve learned that the election wasn’t rigged after all.

One of the reasons kids are so destabilized by this mess is that they’ve been witnessing, as we all have, for months and months, a person who behaves like a bully. On every front. Now that person has been rewarded for his behaviour – in the most grandiose and public way. It goes against everything they know to be right.

But, at the risk of clichéing, I want to remind us all that this is an opportunity. We can follow Hillary’s lead. As a presidential candidate, and in her pivotal, closely-observed role as first woman in that position, she has been an admirable role model in every way Trump has not. She has comported herself with dignity, grace, reason, compassion, and insight, remaining unflappable and even keeping a sense of humour throughout the degrading and interminable campaign process. Her concession speech brought tears to my eyes when she addressed herself to the little girls watching, because there was so much love in her words.

We can do this too. We can stand up to bullies. We can be evolved role models. We can do love. We can remember that the citizens of America, and people in general, have very little to do with the Donald Trump. That he does not actually represent you or us. We represent ourselves, and we must do so with the most enlightenment possible.

Here are some things kids are learning, in spite of characters like Trump:

  • Use your words – the best ones you can.
  • Listen carefully to understand. Don’t interrupt.
  • Take three deep breaths when you’re upset.
  • Lashing out doesn’t solve things.
  • Being mean is not okay.
  • Reach out to someone who needs your support.
  • Include others.
  • Take turns.
  • Be generous when you can.
  • Say you’re sorry when you’ve done something wrong.
  • Good manners are important.
  • Try to understand how others are feeling, especially when you disagree.
  • Be kind.
  • All people deserve consideration and respect.

Most of us know about these simple things. They are things that lift us above our baser instincts and set us apart from other animals. They can be difficult concepts for people who live in filterless, unexamined immaturity, but the rest of us can help them get there.

In a way, maybe we should have seen this election result coming, what with ISIL and Brexit and rampant gun violence and viciously unbridled internet trolling. It’s as if our species is having a personality crisis, at a time when it really seems that we should be beyond this. We should be civilized by now. We have these big brains. We can transplant delicate organs. We build structures that reach the clouds. We take pictures of the surface of Mars. We have computers in our pockets that can access all the world’s information – but kindness still eludes us.

There are hard times ahead. It will take the most brilliant hearts in the world to get us through. Let’s be the example, and train up as many of those loving, shining souls as we can.

sunset-hands-love-woman

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