Recently, 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 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 where I trained a lab rat. 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, efficiency, convenience and cost savings of smartphones aren’t a blessing.
Still, there can be too much of a good thing. Consider what data collected in recent years shows, for example…
- Americans check their smartphones an average of 262 times a day. That’s 16 times every waking hour.
- And that’s just the “checking” part. Research shows 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.
- American adults spend an average of 5.4 hours per day on their phones. For teens, that number jumps to more than seven hours.
- According to research from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids ages 8 to 12 are spending four to six hours a day using electronic media, which includes smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, TVs and computers.
- Children who are heavy media users tend to have lower grades than those who are light users. (Yet fewer than half of kids report that their parents set any rules or limits on usage.)
- Ninety-five percent of all 13- to 17-year-olds now own smartphones. Fifty-three percent of children own one by age 11. But they’re not talking much… On average, teens send 67 texts a day. Apparently, there is hardly a thought that doesn’t require instant communication.
- Particularly scary is that nearly 40% of teens admitted that they texted or emailed while driving. (In other words, keep your hands in the 10 and 2 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.
Although traditional television consumption peaked in 2009 to 2010, Nielsen Holdings research shows that TV viewing still clocks in at about 3 1/2 hours per day.
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, scroll or 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 cultivate an educated mind. Yet data shows that Americans spend around just 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, surf the web 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 one day, I was enjoying the weather and the clear blue sky. But I wondered whether many of the students noticed the same. 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 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.
Or, as I like to say, log off and live.