Since 2010, human behavior has changed. In these last 7 years, we have experienced the complete integration of smartphones, the holy grail of gadgetry, into our everyday lifestyle. In that same time frame, we have experienced the proliferation of tablets among children at play, students at school, and even in the daily life of older adults who quickly took over Facebook. The teenagers quickly fled to other forms of social media, namely Instagram and Snapchat, both of which have become youth culture phenomena. So much has changed in just 7 years, as we have all come to realize that for almost everything “there is an app for that.
We use our devices so much because they work so well at so many things, and they make life more fun, more efficient, and more… everything. Both the allure and the utility are undeniable. Just look around at all the people in any public space. At any given time, most of them are on their phones, which is a truly remarkable fact. What else garners that much attention?
There is no question about our reliance on our glowing rectangles: small, medium, and large. In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that many of us are now, at least to some extent, cyborgs. A cyborg is a living organism that has enhanced abilities due to the integration of technology that relies on some sort of feedback. The concept is that so many of us now use technological devices and services in such an integrative way, that we are actually connected to the technology organically. Our devices are on us, or within an arm’s reach, nearly 24/7, and our brains are now wired with our devices in mind.
Perhaps it is an overstatement, but sometimes I wonder if we are plugging ourselves into some form of The Matrix that continues to evolve and slowly gain power over us. So many of us have embraced it all and are unwilling to return to the dark ages of analog in any way. We are content with each new form of technological advancement: social media, online shopping, virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and beyond. For many, this fast-moving train of technology is a thrilling ride, headed toward a new frontier of human progress.
But some of us are not comfortable with an unfettered adventure into the vast unknown horizon of technology. We feel that we have a lot to lose. We have lives that feel complete without smartphones, tablets, or even the internet. We have children, and we think a lot about what sort of childhood they should have, what sort of world they will enter, and what sort of person they should become. And we are worried, as we wonder about it all.
We are not comfortable with the claims by many experts that maybe our brains are changing, that our communities are declining, that social skills seem to be in jeopardy, and that anxiety and depression are on the rise. We have a hard time explaining away reports by medical doctors warning of the dangers of excessive screen time, such as Dr. Victoria Dunckley who writes, “screen devices interfere with a child’s physiological systems, altering brain chemistry, hormones, and sleep, ultimately interfering with thinking, mood, behavior, and social skills.” She believes that screens are causing hyperarousal and mood dysregulation, which is often misdiagnosed as ADHD and other mental and emotional disorders.
While science has little proof for such claims, those of us who work with children and families daily have a strong sense that something is very wrong with all this screen interaction. And the fact that science can not keep up with technology concerns us even more.
Technology is moving at the pace of a 200 MPH supercar. But science is slow. It takes decades for the scientists to properly test the effects of these products and services and the many ways that we use them. It takes even longer for experts to reach consensus about what the science proves and how we should use the new technology. Science is a tandem bicycle that moves at 20 MPH. It cannot keep up. So we are concerned that by the time we gain the wisdom to use the new technology well, it will not be new; in fact, it will be far too late. Consider the use of cell phones while driving. It has taken almost 20 years to prove that cell phone use while driving is a major public health hazard, and yet it is still not socially unacceptable or outlawed in very many places. It may be 30 or more years between the time the technology allows drivers to use cell phones and the time that we as a society learned to handle it properly. In the meantime, we have added interactive touchscreen displays to our cars, which seems crazy, but again, science moves slowly and will take years to prove that this too is a bad use of technology.
Therefore, many of us are cautious with our adoption of new technologies. We are not confident that it is all good and that the future is all bright. Many of us actually feel a lot better when we spend a day without technology. We feel much better after a day in the woods, even just an hour in a book. We feel better after an evening with friends around a table of interesting food. We think more clearly, feel more at peace, and gain more wisdom from reflecting upon an important question quietly alone or in conversation with a friend. We enjoy time away from the glowing rectangles, and we hope that our children learn to do the same.
Sure, we watch TV and use our laptops to read, write, and watch videos. Of course, we use our smartphones to keep in touch with family and friends. We own iPhones with useful apps and weather maps. But we wish we didn’t have to check our phones so often. We remember simpler times and kind of wish we could go back in time to when the answering machine and the VHS was the highest tech going. We prefer dinner with friends to some app called “Words With Friends.”
Fortunately, this is not an all-or-nothing situation. It is not a zero sum game. Balance is possible. Moderation is feasible. There are ways to regulate these things. It is not impossible to use technology without letting it use us. We can use tech without abusing it.
But let’s not fool ourselves, we are on our own. The culture is not going to be helping us in this pursuit. Nothing will change until we as individuals desire some independence and seek out tools of empowerment. Until we learn to unplug more often and develop some control over our digital lives.
So how can we gain control over the products, services, and experiences that continue to evolve in their ability to allure and persuade us? That will be my next post, which will be coming very soon.
In the meantime, if you want to delve deeper into these issues, take a look at some of the following articles and videos.
High-Tech Insider Explains How They Hook Us
In the Attention Economy, Technology and Media are Designed to Maximize Our Screen Time
Silicon Valley Executives Foresee a Dystopian Future
Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
How Teens Today are Different Due to Tech
Children are Using Screens at Record Levels
We Touch Our Phones 2,600 Times Per Day
Big Tech is Engineering a New Humanity
Why the Designers Make It All So Addictive
Excessive Interactive Screentime is Problematic (Electronic Screen Syndrome)
Are We All Cyborgs Now? (a 2010 Ted Talk)
Up Next: Part 2: practical tips for gaining control over technology