The other day, I had lunch with a friend. But I can’t really say I enjoyed it.
Every few minutes, he pulled his iPhone out and glanced at his text messages.
Sometimes, he would just scan them. Other times, he would offer an apology and type out a quick message. When he finished, he would stuff the phone back into his pants pocket, unable to trust himself with the device in plain sight.
Five minutes later, it was out again.
It reminded me of an Experimental Psych course I took in college. I trained a lab rat so that, every time he pressed a bar in his cage, he received a food pellet. Then I required him to press the bar twice for a pellet. Then three times. Then five times. Then 10 times. Before long, the rat was a bar-pressing maniac, oblivious to everything around him.
Sound like anyone you know?
Don’t get me wrong. Only a Luddite would argue that the speed, the efficiency, the convenience and the cost savings of smartphones aren’t a blessing.
Still, there can be too much of a good thing. Consider, for example:
- Surveys show that Americans check their smartphones an average of 150 times a day. That’s 11 times every waking hour.
- And that’s just the “checking” part. According to researcher Dscout, we touch our phones an average of 2,617 times a day. (That’s counting every click, type, tap and swipe.) I’m betting your significant other doesn’t get that much attention.
- A poll of 27,500 adults between the ages of 18 and 55 found that people are spending 30% of their leisure time online.
- According to a survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, kids are spending an average of more than 7 1/2 hours a day using electronic media, which includes TV, the internet, video games and mobile devices. Kids are plugged into some kind of electronic device for more than 53 hours a week – more time than most adults spend at work.
- Children who are heavy media users tend to have lower grades than those who are light users. (Yet less than half of kids report that their parents set any rules or limits on usage.)
- More than three-quarters of all 12- to 17-year-olds now own smartphones, but not for talking much. Half of all teens send 50 or more texts a day. One in three sends more than 100 text messages a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month. Apparently, there is hardly a thought that doesn’t require instant communication.
- Particularly scary is that 34% of cell-owning teens aged 16 to 17 admit that they text while driving. Over half say they have been in a car while the driver was texting. (In other words, keep your hands in the 10 and two position, and your eyes on the oncoming lane.)
You might assume that our time spent texting and surfing the net at least comes out of the hours we would otherwise spend watching TV.
Nope. The Nielsen Company’s research shows that, as internet use has gone up, TV viewing has either held steady or increased. The time we spend in front of the tube has reached a record 153 hours a month. (And this doesn’t include television programs watched online.)
We are a nation addicted to electronic media.
Optimists point out that at least people spending time online are reading. That’s good. But studies show that most of the reading we do on the internet is pretty shallow. We skim, we scroll, we hypertext from page to page.
Some argue that these links save time and facilitate learning. But the jury is still out. Psychologists say readers on the internet are distracted and overstimulated by hypermedia. We give less attention to what we read and remember less of it.
The online environment promotes cursory reading, distracted thinking and superficial learning. And the more we use it, the less patience we have for long, drawn-out, nuanced arguments – the kind of arguments found, for instance, in books.
Books – including e-books – require calm, focused, undistracted concentration that allows ideas to germinate and take hold.
Deep reading inspires new associations, insights and the occasional epiphany. Thoughts expand. Language grows. Consciousness deepens.
This kind of reading enhances and refines our experience of the world. It strengthens our ability to think abstractly. Deep reading requires the time and attention that cultivates an educated mind. Yet polls show that Americans now spend less than 20 minutes a day reading printed matter of any kind.
We’re on the net instead. Even when away from their computers and mobile devices – or on vacation – millions itch to check email, web surf or do some Googling. They seek an internet connection the way a man on fire seeks a pond. They have to feel connected.
For many, the digital revolution has put the computer – desktop, laptop and handheld – in control. The silicon chip is Big Brother, not because electronic media won’t let go of us but because we can’t let go of it.
Walking around the University of Virginia campus the other day, I enjoyed the crisp weather and the clear blue sky. But I wondered if many of the students noticed. Eyes down, thumbs on tiny keyboards, they shuffled toward some unseen horizon, oblivious to their surroundings.
I realize some folks have work or unusual circumstances where they simply must stay connected 24/7. But for tens of millions of others, that’s not the case.
We seem to have developed a terrific anxiety about wandering off the grid: some fear that if we stop texting, browsing, emailing, tweeting, posting or snapchatting, we might disappear.
The electronic media obsessed seem to have forgotten that they have a choice. They can hit the off button and pay attention to something – or someone – else.
So join the counterrevolution. Look up. Unplug. Get outside.
It’s better to “Log Off and Live.”