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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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*