Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Addiction and digital media

Are we hopelessly hooked on digital media?  People like me, who have cell phones but seldom use them but check email and rely on the internet daily, are not; but all around me I see people obsessed with their smartphones.

Americans spend about five hours a day on their digital media, most of it on mobile devices.  Students at Baylor University, according to one survey, said they spent ten hours a day using their cell phones, but that number may be low.

On average, Americans check their phones 221 times a day; and a Gallop Poll last year reported that  people checked their phones less often than their friends.

The data comes courtesy of a review-article by Jacob Weisberg (in the New York Review of Books) on the latest book by Sherry Turkle, the MIT researcher who has been studying the psychological effect of social media on behavior, including conversation.

Reclaiming Conversation (Turkle's important book is not anti-technology but presents a wake-up call to the 21st century, contending that the communications revolution of the past two decades has degraded the quality of human relationships.  We all know about parents distracted from their children or people driving while texting or eating dinner with the smart phone replacing live talk.  I remember teaching a college literature class where, as if to avoid eye contact with me, most of the students were looking at their laptops, perhaps checking emails or material unrelated to the discussion. We were in separate worlds.

The effect of the smart phone on dating is one of the many areas of concern to researchers like Turkle: how can young people develop a relationship if they are mainly absorbed in the messages and music of their cell phones? If they feel disengaged from busy parents and teachers, they might also be alienated from friends and partners--and from solitude.

As Jonathan Franzen has written (in a piece praising the work of Turkle), conversation requires solitude because "in solitude we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are."

So the issues raised by the addiction to digital media are serious: a loss of solitude, of empathy, of self-reflection, of genuine relationships. I was shocked to read in the Weisberg review that many young people never speak to one another on smart phones: they prefer to type text messages.

How sad that fear dominates communication, hampering interpersonal connections. People walking down the street prefer to look at their smartphones, thus avoiding eye contact with others and feeling safer, presumably.  Are they so fearful of human interaction--or so bored--that they need the constant reassurance or stimulation of their ever-present mobile devices?

Seventy percent of those under age 25 contacted by the Pew survey said that cell phones make them feel freer, and fifty percent said they use their phones to avoid contact with others.  I would think they would not feel freer but enslaved. I worry that their inner lives, lacking time for empathy and unable to be present to others--to listen--will never develop in a mature way.

No doubt it's too early to draw too many firm conclusions from the current technological revolution, but the danger signs are clear.

Franzen, who calls Twitter irresponsible, echoes Turkle's thesis that it's time to act like adults and put technology in its place.  This means that the devices we create are at our service; we do not serve them. And that people of any age must make time to be alone, to be personal, to be human: that is, to be fully present to those around us.

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