(This essay is the second in a series on Technology, Society, and the Human Being. It was originally published on January 18, 2020, in the Newport Daily News.)
It is easy for the Baby-Boom Generation to criticize the younger generations for spending too much time on individual screens; however, maybe there is hope. If my undergrad students are any indication, more and more of them are aware of the downside of smartphones and social media.
Over the past several years, I have watched individual screens come to dominate the lives of some of my grandchildren. In some cases one screen is not enough; they need two. Sitting together in front of a large TV, some are not satisfied. Simultaneously most of them are also busy on their smartphones. Regrettably, smartphones tend to be used inside and while stationary.
On a beautiful, sunny Saturday last September at a beach cottage in Little Compton, after devouring the scrambled eggs I had prepared for them, my four youngest grandchildren returned to their bunkbeds and individual screens rather than bike to the beach, explore the woods, climb a tree, shoot hoops, or explore the neighbor’s blackberry patch. Regrettably, this was not a singular event. They tend to default to the smartphone rather than other activity.
In a survey by the Common Sense Media non-profit, released in October, of 1677 young people, ages 8 to 18, it was found that the average tween, 8-12, spent four hours and 44 minutes daily with entertainment devices. For teens, the figure was an incredible seven hours, 22 minutes. (This did not include time spent in cyberspace listening to music, doing homework, or reading books.)
Since their introduction in 2007, I have been amazed at the places I find people using smartphones: driving a car, driving a lawn mower, riding a skateboard, riding a bike, using the urinal, sitting in a library surrounded by a million books, between sets at the fitness center, and walking out of a college classroom and bumping into me entering.
However, I have found grounds for hope in my Gen Z (born after 1995) college students. For the past four years on their term exam, I have given Salve Regina undergrads in my Western Civilization class the opportunity to write about one “good aspect” and one “bad aspect” of their civilization. I provided a list of possible subjects to choose from, but also encouraged them to choose any subject. For three years from 25% to 33% chose to write about the negative impacts of the new technologies. (Note: In some cases they examined it also as a positive aspect.) This past fall, however, for the first time 50% of my students chose to criticize it.
Over these years, the students made different criticisms of the smartphone and social media. Camille said: “I can honestly say that my phone and other electronic devices distract me. Even when I know I need to focus on something, I can’t if I know my phone is there …” Another student indicated: “…people no longer live in the moment. They are always on their phones.”
Several female students addressed the unrealistic beauty standards set by the internet. Lindsay said: “Media in American society is toxic to adolescents. Media portrays celebrities as perfect human specimens without flaws. This causes adolescents, especially girls, to form unrealistic expectations of physical beauty.” Nicole wrote of the ad pop-ups with “…pictures of beautiful people who make normal people self-conscious.” This can lead people to think they are not “good enough,” leading to mental disorders. Hanna made the same point: Social media makes users “feel inadequate,” “…as if you aren’t living up to a social standard.”
Andrew had another criticism: “Many people use social media to put down others and make fun of people,” adding that “social media can ruin a person’s life.”
Nicole addressed an opportunity cost: Smart phone are “taking over people’s lives…. They do not enjoy nature, or other people’s company …. They miss out on parts of life, human interactions, and the many things outdoors ….”
Carla was apocalyptic: “…I think technology is ruining our generation.” “…it is difficult for the modern person to stay connected to what is real.”
By far the most common criticism was what smartphones are doing to inter-personal communication. This past fall nearly every student who criticized smartphones addressed this point. Ray said it has led to “social disconnect.” Al stated bluntly: “The art of public speaking has been lost in my generation.” Sophia said: “We are so dependent on them, a lot of us cannot have a real conversation with someone. Digital screens have completely taken over our lives….” Ainsley pointed out: “…technology has become something that divides us rather than brings us together. It encourages deception and numbs social interaction.”
Finally, several students took their criticisms to a higher level, speaking to the essence of society and human-ness. Kyle said: “…social media can corrupt a human being…. “[It] is limiting our ability to communicate with others in person, which is essential to our nature.” Kristin stated that because of the dependence on technology, “generations lack what is necessary to live fully.” There is “a loss of depth, meaning, and fulfillment in life’s experience….”
Dan addressed this same point and tied it to a giant of Western Civilization: “Smartphones prevent humans from fully exploring all the possibilities life has to offer. And as the immortal Socrates said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.