Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. And the list goes on and on and on. Those are only a handful of the social media apps that we peruse and post to on a daily basis. That list doesn’t include any of the countless other apps for games, recipes, shopping, entertainment, etc. that aid and often bombard our everyday lives. We live in a society that is constantly connected; we are always “on,” and this is starting to have a pretty devastating impact. Don’t get me wrong, technology has the capacity to improve our lives in many ways, and it has. But our reliance on technology and our constant desire to have the latest and greatest devices loaded up with the newest and most revolutionary applications is having some adverse effects on our culture as a whole, but more specifically, and perhaps more detrimentally, on our children. For people who are thirty-ish and older, we can remember a time before everyone, young and old, owned a cell phone or a tablet, but that is not the case for twenty-somethings and below. Life without a device is simply not something that they can fathom or relate to because they’ve never not had one, or at least never not had the option of owning one.
As a college instructor, I see the problems that this obsession with technology is having on our students firsthand. My students walk in the door with their cell phones in hand, staring down at their screens. They find their seats and get their books out, all while texting, tweeting, and posting. They don’t interact with their classmates much, and usually these interactions, when they do happen, involve a device – sharing a YouTube video, looking at a recent Snapchat picture. They’ve also largely lost the ability to pay attention to much of anything besides their phones for more than a few minutes. They’ve been trained by their devices to process information in short snippets. This makes it especially hard for them to read, from a physical book, a twenty or thirty page short story for homework. Rarely do any of my students make it through an entire fifty minute class period without “covertly” checking their cell phones for notifications, and the minute I announce that class is over, every student picks up his or her phone and resumes staring at the screen as he or she exits. The truth is, though, I’m just as guilty of this as they are, and it scares me. I’m an instructor of English, and I love to read, or at least I used to, but lately I find myself losing focus when I try to sit and read for long periods of time; I rarely read any articles from the internet that aren’t produced in list format. I’ve become just as programmed by my device as my students have, and I’m willing to bet that you have, too.
In fact, we all have and not by accident. A recent 60 Minutes episode featured a segment on Brain Hacking and included testimony from application and software developers in Silicon Valley – the Mecca of Technology, if you will. These experts shared startling stories about the way app developers capitalize on our constant thirst to be connected. It’s no accident that you can’t help but check your phone for notifications of likes or comments ten minutes after posting a new picture to Facebook – there’s an algorithm that determines how long to make you wait to see the next notification bubble pop up to ensure that you keep checking and keep checking, and it attempts to guarantee that you’ll always have something to find each time you look. This reward system activates the pleasure centers in our brains to release small amounts of dopamine, also known as the feel-good chemical, and this sense of joy or relief keeps us clicking and scrolling, clicking and scrolling, constantly demanding more content and encouraging us to keep posting so that we can acquire more likes, more followers, and more recognition.
It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s led to an increase in technology addiction. I spoke with Wendie Woods, a local counselor at Christian Changes Counseling and Recovery Center, to get a professional take on this ever-growing problem, particularly about how it relates to families. Wendie has seen a “significant increase in the use of technology within families,” explaining that “texting has replaced verbal communication, and social media has replaced the art of individual conversations.” Perhaps the most disheartening effect of technology is that “many families learn about each other through social media posts rather than engaging with one another. Thus, relationships are weakened, and the intimacy of being a family is lost.” When asked about the specific side effects of an overuse of or addiction to technology, Wendie said, “Overindulgence in technology and social media often leads to isolation from friends, family, and even social events. Isolation can then easily lead to feelings of depression and/or anxiety which may then lead to irritability and further withdrawal.” This can eventually lead to an overall decline in mental, emotional, and physical health.
Neil Tullos, our Youth Minister at FBC Starkville, also weighed in on how technology and social media are affecting our own students. Neil explained that the devices themselves aren’t necessarily a problem or too much of a distraction at weekly youth events. Sure, some students access their Bibles on their phones, so there’s always the temptation to click over to another app, so to counteract this, Neil and his staff make sure that printed Bibles are available to students; still, the problem doesn’t really lie in the bringing of the device to church or to church functions. What concerns Neil more than anything is the way these devices are altering how students think and interact. He says, “Teens are always thinking about what is happening online and how what they are doing will be portrayed….” He’s also concerned about the role social media plays in developing their identities and their satisfaction with what they are doing or who they are with at any given time. Much of a teen’s self-esteem is wrapped up in the number of likes a picture gets or being sure to appear cool or happy or perfect in every photo that’s posted. Likewise, if a teen is spending time with family but notices that a friend is doing something that appears to be more fun or exciting, via a post on social media, that teen is less likely to enjoy family time due to the fear of missing out on what’s happening with his or her friends. Neil also commented on the way that social media increases the extent of bullying: “Bullying is also having a greater impact on them because they don’t escape the bully when they leave school…. The bully is still present on social media or through a messenger app or a text message. They feel as though they have no escape from the bully’s presence.” The impact that bullying has on our children and teens is perhaps the most frightening side-effect of too much social media, as it has led to many students harming themselves and/or others to try to escape from or compensate for their torment. It’s clear that technology and social media really are affecting young people and families in increasingly negative ways.
However, all hope is not lost! There are lots of ways parents and all adults can help mitigate these harmful effects, and it all starts with the type of behavior that we model for them. Both Wendie and Neil agree that a great place to start is by having designated time each day where no one is allowed to be on a device. This means a total device blackout – the phones and tablets go away, and the family interacts in some other meaningful way. You could eat dinner together during this time and talk about your day, or you could play a game or do some other family activity. While some device-free time should happen each day, families should also plan trips or events where this time is extended for a more meaningful period of time like on a family day-trip or vacation. Another issue that Wendie and Neil both feel strongly about is the need to monitor your child’s activity online. There are many filtering apps and devices that you can install in your home or on individual devices, and that’s a good place to start. However, you should have access to all of your child’s online activity. You should routinely monitor what they’re saying, what they’re sharing, and who they’re talking to. Neil also suggests taking devices away in the evenings and returning them at breakfast the next day. As far as the age a child should be to obtain a device or a social media presence, Wendie explains that this differs from child to child and depends a lot on the individual child’s level of maturity and specific need for the device, but she does say that devices should always be a reward or a privilege and not a right. Again, the behavior that we model in regards to our own devices will largely impact the way our students use them, so as Neil says, “Don’t have your kids constantly posing for your own social media content. Show them that they can eat an ice cream cone, go to a ball game, or just have a night at home without having to post about it online.”
Hopefully this has alerted to you to some of the dangers facing your family and your children when it comes to technology and social media usage, but more than that, I hope that it has given you some encouragement and ideas about how to improve time spent with your family. If you’re looking for more discussion, there will be a parent training session during the community group hour on Sunday, June 25th, and I encourage you to attend. Both Neil Tullos and Leah Frances Eaton will present during this time and will provide parents with resources addressing this issue. One important fact to remember, according to Neil, is that “social media and phones are morally neutral. It’s how we use them that determines whether they are beneficial or detrimental to us,” so we should all take strides to increase the benefits by putting the screens down, every now and then.