Could you give up your phone? That’s what Simon Cowell and a number of other celebrities claim to be doing. Mr Cowell has said, “The difference it made was that I became more aware of the people around me and way more focused”. To be fair, celebs are probably kept pretty well informed by their respective entourages. For those living more regular lives, are we spending too much time sucked into our digital worlds?
I was out for lunch recently and I was quite honestly astounded by the family at the next table. They were clearly tourists visiting Cambridge: a mother and father and their son and daughter who I’d guess were in their late teens. Each had their phones all the way through starters, mains and desserts. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they didn’t speak a single word to one another during the entire meal. Perhaps they’d just had enough of each other on that particular day. And I know we are all guilty of checking in with this or that when really we should be putting our phones away. But I’d never seen a family so wrapped up in their tech that they had absolutely no interest in sharing a conversation. It was awful, phones in faces, eating with one hand. So what were they actually doing? Well perhaps they were all checking out tourist information services to come up with a plan for their afternoon. Or perhaps they were Facebooking and “spending time” with people they would actually rather be with?!
Is it necessary to go the whole hog with a full digital detox by getting rid of our phones?
In our house the rule is no phones at the table. Mealtimes are for eating and for sharing news and conversation. I have two young children so the conversation part is sometimes a bit dubious. However, I do feel strongly that if, as parents, we make the effort to listen now, and look interested despite how trivial the topic might be, our boys will hopefully continue to share their hopes, dreams and worries with us as they grow into teenagers.
Surely for many of us, being online so much of the time does take away from the time we can be in touch with the real world. I do concede though that Facebook, What’sApp or your chosen social media app of choice are all brilliant for keeping in touch with a much wider circle of friends and family than you could through meeting up or talking on the phone. But I also think it’s worth thinking about who these “friends” are.
So, you get a friend request from someone you vaguely knew at school 25 years ago. Do you accept? In my case I would think carefully about whether I would make an effort to go and catch up with this person if I saw them (and recognised them) in a “real” situation. And once I’d accepted them, it should really be to exchange messages and see how they were doing. Not to just have a snoop at their profile and see what kind of life they’ve made for themselves. That would just be five minutes of low level entertainment and another friend added to my burgeoning newsfeed.
I know that for some it’s all about how many “friends” you have, how many likes, sharing a constant stream of their perfect looking life, their angelic looking children and their amazing smiles. But what for? Perhaps they crave the approval that they feel this gives them. Perhaps they need other people’s comments and acceptance. But what we see online is not real. These are snippets of daily life, and usually just the good bits. Is it right to judge someone in a few minutes? Probably not, but it’s human nature. And it’s well understood though that seeing all this apparent perfection can lead those scrolling through their newsfeeds to feel inadequate when it seems like their lives and their bickering children don’t quite measure up…. Which in turn can then lead to more posting of photos - snapshots of the happy moments.
And that brings me on to the newsfeed itself. I often spend a few minutes scrolling through to see what my friends have been up to. It can be frustrating though to have to wade through a mass of posts, and adverts, that to be honest are of no interest whatsoever and have no impact on my life. Things like a cat spinning round in circles, or someone saying “Goodnight world”,.…erm, OK, night then. I’ve actually seen couples communicating through posts on Facebook as well. For goodness sakes, put the phones away and talk to each other!
I prefer now to check in on a handful of the friends I actually care about and seeing their posts. It is the case though that if you don’t check in you could well miss out on some key news. I personally hope that if a proper friend had something to share, they would contact me rather than relying on a post on Facebook.
Having said all this, I have got back into contact with some friends from the past I would love to hear about and have then met up with them. One good example is a very close friend I lost touch with when she suddenly left school in our teens. I always wondered where she was and what she was doing, and twenty years later we met up in London and I found out. I have several other reconnections that would not have happened without a digital world.
So it has it’s place, but do we really want to bring our children up to believe that people generally present themselves with a phone in the way? We’ve seen those clips (most probably on Facebook) of someone on their phone walking into a lamppost. Funny, right? But sad actually that they are missing what’s going on around them. And sadder still that children, and adults, are made to feel less important than the device in your hand.
It’s not just social media. Emails are way too easy to access. The work life balance is an overused term especially by some employers who punt this ethic but then expect their employees to have their emails constantly pinging through on their phones. Colleagues might be freaking out because you don’t seem to have responded quickly enough. They can see that you’ve read their email at 8.10 on Sunday morning (when you were supposed to be helping your son get his football boots tied up) so why haven’t you replied? But would an email read quickly in this moment really contribute to effectiveness, or would it be better to read it properly, in work time, at a desk, and then to send a considered response?
Mental health issues are talked about so much in today’s media, and we need to be mindful of how we are behaving before we dictate to teenagers what they should and shouldn’t be doing. It may or may not be harmful that young people are more likely to message each other than talk to each other. But it is certainly dangerous that the online world is hidden. Impressionable people of any age can be swept away. There was a craze not so long ago where a Facebook game would encourage children to take on the challenge of going missing for 48 hours. The fact it’s coming through social media, through their “friends”, and touted as “fun” would clearly mislead children into believing that fending for themselves and leaving their parents at their wits end with worry would be a bit of a laugh. As well as grounding ourselves, in the real world, we need to look out for our children too.
So how do we avoid developing a digital crick in the neck? We need to walk down the street, phones put away, and look up at each other. Social media and being in touch on the go is an amazing thing, but so is the art of socialising and taking in the world around us. Capture your children’s golden moments and enjoy every unique opportunity…not always by taking a photo and posting it by way of justifying how special it was. Just capture it with your mind and enjoy the reality of being there – they will thank you for it.