One of the many challenges of modern parenting is in raising my kids to see the merits of doing as I suggest.
I present a more consistent, congruent and persuasive example if I eat my vegetables, speak respectfully, use time productively and don’t waste money. If I want them to get off the couch, turn off the TV and do something active then I need to live an active life myself. When my goal is to encourage them in pursuit of a sport, there’s no point in my whining if I have to travel across the country to ferry them to a match.
To impart my values in them, I need to demonstrate them myself. It’s simple.
The single biggest challenge I now face is in convincing them that there’s life beyond the screen of their smartphones and tablets. It’s not just a challenge for us as parents, but rather for society as a whole.
I’m as active a user of my iPhone (dutifully upgraded as technology advances) as all the family. I’d counter that my usage is for business purposes, for email, research, writing or managing my social media presence but it matters little to my kids; I may as well be crushing candy or chasing Pokemon. Their perspective is that I can’t lecture them on doing nothing but using their phones for entertainment when I’m using mine almost as frequently.
I’m certainly no technophobe. I’ve always embraced technology and think it’s miraculous what we can now achieve via our phones for the sheer computing power alone. I’d estimate around 80% of my waking life involves use of my smartphone to some extent, for the meditation app I use when I wake, the music and audio books I listen to while exercising, and the documents I read and create using it. I even make the occasional call.
I’m not oblivious to the hypocrisy of complaining when I’ve provided the devices in the first place. The problem lays in the unpleasant side-effects observed from smartphone usage in me and my family in the last couple of years. Five of the six of us have them and the youngest has an iPad so is part of the clique in her way. It seems to me the effects are just as prevalent in the wider world too.
So how should I tackle these traits in myself and help my family to do the same? I’ve made idle suggestions of downgrading to an old-fashioned analogue-style handset but frankly this seems a step backwards; like selling my car and resorting to travelling by horse-and-cart in a gesture of self-limitation.
Here are three of the most insidious ways that I see smart-phones influencing my family life today; I don’t have the answers to how these effects can be countered. As you’ll see, it’s not so much the devices themselves, but the apps, their usage and the behaviours they encourage. I deliberately use we and us in my analysis, since I’m as guilty as the kids for the most part.
Clogged Social media news-feeds and pushed-alerts ensure we have the constant exposure to who’s wearing what, how we should look, where we should eat, what we should do and what we should buy. Everyone is obsessed with growing their following and gathering likes in response to their posts which adds an unhelpful element of competition into the mix. If consuming this endless flow of information weren’t enough of a drain, we feel compelled to contribute to it too.
We feel obliged to put our perspective across, share the impression (or illusion) of just how good a time we’re having, how good we look, how on-point or on-trend we are and once we’ve shared the image or video we’re then paralysed in anticipation, unable to focus on much else until we receive the validation of the likes, shares and re-posts from those we know and many others who we don’t.
This troubles me greatly as it encourages a selfishness and an inward-focus that places more importance on gaining input and validation from others than the genuine and assured confidence that comes from within. It also negates the heartfelt feedback from those who truly know and love us, not just superficially on a screen but in real-life.
When the validation isn’t forthcoming, the blows to self-esteem have far more significant an effect than the positive affirmations do.
I’ve seen my kids working with fervour and focus to market and promote particular posts and selfies; encouraging each other to like them, crafting comments and affirmations for each other to use, and questioning why certain others have liked a picture or commented in a particular way as if trying to spot trends. It’s all about the results, not about the quiet satisfaction of a victory-won or a quiet achievement behind the scenes.
If cyberspace doesn’t know about something, it’s as if it might as well not have happened.
I have a childhood memory of a fridge-magnet that imparted the saying ‘The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. I’m sad to report that I see a great deal of such cynicism engendered through the use of smartphones. Instant access to the web allows anyone to find out the approximate value (or perhaps more apt in this context, the cost) of a given item, within seconds.
This isn’t as trivial as it may first sound. As a re-married divorcee with 2 teenage daughters and 2 younger step-kids, I can tell you it presents real challenges when your kids can find out how much you may have spent on your wife’s Christmas gift or on a new car. Armed with the costs of such items they are ably equipped to make you feel guilt for not getting them a Mulberry handbag for their birthday, or for not buying a car they can also drive.
They become experts at fathoming whether each child is receiving fair treatment, who’s had what and who may be the favourite (based purely on money spent). I fear it’s only a matter of time before they research my approximate income and use that in negotiations around their allowance.
Smartphones promote cynicism in other ways too. We have the unfiltered opportunity to cyber-snoop upon those who we know and others we don’t, and form judgments upon them. We’re granted access into their lives and pasts, and as I keep warning the kids, we grant corresponding visibility of our own lives and movements which will exist in cyberspace for all eternity.
Access to information is often cited as one of the greatest benefits of living in the modern age. This access provides limitless opportunity to make unhelpful comparisons between our lives and what we have both materially and spiritually, with others.
It’s this that I believe promotes the cynicism and general dissatisfaction that can come from not being happy with our lot in life, regardless of how much we may actually have to be grateful for.
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel” – Steve Furtick
This final ‘ism’ is evidenced in the lack of focus and loss of presence and appreciation for what we have in the moment. This has been replaced by a tendency to become easily bored, our attention diverted by bigger things and better opportunities that are revealed to us via the smartphone.
Rather than appreciating what we have and where we are, instead we’re constantly scanning the horizon for something better. We refuse to fully engage with the moment for fear of missing out (FOMO), and fail to extract all the joy from a given activity as our attention wanders and satisfaction plummets.
We refuse to believe that what we have is good enough since we’re constantly exposed to all the bigger, better and more opulent activities and acquisitions of those who choose to share them online.
I see this emerging in my kids as boredom thresholds lower and they derive less satisfaction from activities. A recent example was a pre-Christmas outing to a local pop-up ice-skating rink. The promotional videos on a local Facebook feed had prompted their interest and we took them there as a surprise (at not-inconsiderable cost). A mere 15 minutes into the session, the obligatory selfies captured to commemorate the occasion (and shared with the wider world) and the familiar refrain ‘I’m bored’ was heard. It was apparent that the main-event of the day wasn’t going to buy us more than an hour of good-will at best.
This paints the picture of spoilt brats who don’t know how good they’ve got it (certainly that was our assessment at the time). It exemplifies how something that as a kid, I may have recalled as a highlight, becomes instead just a part of the expected norms of life. When you have full visibility of the lives others who are doing the same or better things via your social media feeds, the shine can be taken off almost instantly. Someone else is no doubt on a pre-Christmas trip to Lapland and sharing selfies taken with one of Santa’s elves. Another person is also ice-skating, but at the Rockefeller Centre instead of in Manchester City Centre.
Enough, is rarely enough.
I’m reluctant to leave you with the impression that my kids are self-obsessed materialists with no ability to see beyond their smartphones. All of them are a blessing to me, universally intelligent, considerate, sensitive, loving and balanced. My worry is that their continued growth and development as citizens of a world where keeping up with technology is a necessity for survival, will challenge, test or dilute those hitherto cherished traits.
My greatest wish is to help them (and myself) navigate this unprecedented era of change in technological and social norms. I’ve no idea how it will unfold.
Will there be a mass-rejection of smart-phones to get back to real-life? Possibly, although I doubt it.
Will there be social-media and smart-phone addiction clinics popping up around the world? I’d suspect so.
As users of smartphones and social-media in the future, will we still possess the ability to live mindful, present and focused lives where we’re content with our lot; where the joy in simple pleasures is cherished rather than eroded for not measuring up to the lives of others?
I certainly hope so.