You're at a family gathering, perhaps the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, with parents, in-laws, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins by the dozens attending. But rather than hearing the banter that usually takes place at such gatherings, most of the kids and some of the adults have their heads bowed over their smart phones, texting, Instagramming, or Facebooking to friends far away rather than actually paying attention to and talking to the people around them. I know I've experienced that more than once. I find it both rude and annoying.
Welcome to 21st Century social interaction.
The scene above is but one small example of how smart phones have drastically altered how we interact with each other, and not for the better.
Who do we have to blame for this problem?
In Charlottesville, I found myself having a lunch conversation one day with some folks who are involved in Christian education at the elementary and secondary level. They were talking about the challenges they face today. One of the biggest is the ubiquity of smart phones in the hands of kids. Parents think nothing of giving them to their children, the educators said, and many kids have virtually unlimited access to the Internet. There’s the “older brother porn problem” in which younger kids get turned on to porn by watching it on an older sibling’s smart phone. And there’s the problem of “After School App,” an anonymous bulletin board service designed for high schoolers, one that allows them to gang up on other kids in their class and trash them mercilessly.The normal social cues we grownups take for granted are indecipherable to too many of these kids. They can't easily read facial expressions or body language, missing non-verbal messages or misinterpreting them. This can lead to social ignorance and the inability to interact with others unless it's through a smart phone screen. How many times have we seen a bunch of kids together, hunched over the smart phones and texting to each other even though the person they're texting is close enough to reach out and touch? They don't speak to each other. They don't look each other in the eyes. It's like they've become 'electronically' autistic.
Parents, I was told, are typically no help at all. They don’t want their kids to be out of step with their friends, so they give kids smart phones, which is a technology the kids aren’t emotionally prepared to use. There’s all kinds of bullying, and accessing porn — but parents don’t seem to want to know about it because they don’t want to have to tell their kids no.
One of the educators at the table added that the problem is not limited to the content accessed through the phones, but to the way using these devices is radically distorting the way kids communicate with each other, or fail to. Even if the kids only accessed benign content, and did not use social media to attack each other, they nevertheless spend enormous amounts of time on their smart phones, ignoring everyone around them. Some of them have trouble sustaining an actual conversation for more than a few minutes. All of them are losing the habits of common courtesy that has since forever been how human beings in social situations treat each other.
The linked article goes on to mention that parents who are techies limit their kids access to smart phones, assuming they allow them to have them at all. Even people like Steve Jobs didn't allow his kids to use iPads even though he was the driving force behind them.
I know my son didn't get his first cell phone until he was a senior in high school. Even today, almost 4 years later, he still doesn't have a smart phone. He's using the flip phone, just like his old man. However that is about to change, not because he wants to “be like everyone else” but because it will make Skyping with Polka Girl a lot easier. (She is presently back home near Gdansk, Poland and they Skype two or three times a day.) He presently uses his laptop to do that, but it's problematic at times, so he's going to switch over to some kind of smart phone. In this case he has a good reason to get one and he's getting it himself. His mom and I have nothing to do with it. If it weren't for his need to Skype, he said he wouldn't even be bothering to get one.
Will this problem get worse? Unfortunately, I expect it will, but eventually I believe the trend will reverse itself and this problem will resolve itself. If not, we may find our society becoming more insular and less robust, leaving too many of our people incapable of interacting directly with each other. This problem may also resolve itself as many of the people with this problem will not have kids because they won't be able to interact directly with members of the opposite sex.
Let's hope it doesn't get to that point.