I can recall a specifically vivid memory from a drive down from Dallas to Houston as I returned back to school from winter break. I had stopped to eat at a McDonald’s in a small town along the way and was engaging in one of my favorite hobbies: people watching. The family across from me— two boys, one older girl, and two parents were eating what appeared to be a family dinner. However, no conversation or interaction between them was occurring. Each was configured in a similar pose— one hand on their Big Macs or similarly greasy sandwich and the other on their smartphones, Instagramming, texting or Facebooking while keeping both eyes engaged on the screen as their jaws rhythmically and vigorously chewed the chemically infused meal. All of them had their headphones on, and none of them were even making the slightest attempt to communicate with each other. It was an interesting scene to say the least, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Was this family happy? Were they even thinking about what was actually going on? What had truly been the effect of these devices on this family’s happiness/existence in general?
Most people would say that a scene like this is a spitting image of the negative consequences that smartphones, social media, and immediate internet accessibility have on our society. And I would agree with them. Clearly, it easy to numb our minds and become brainless drones, slaves to these devices manufactured and sold by corporations to lure consumers into a perpetual, addictive cycle of consumption.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen countless articles and videos surface on the web decrying the effect that social media and smartphones have had on our society. They claim that smartphones, social media, and the like have made us less personal, less intimate of a society, describing the issue as if we had no choice in the matter. They overlook the overwhelmingly positive aspects that these technologies have had and focus on these negative consequences without ever offering any solution.
Never mind that Facebook has allowed countless people to continue their friendships in a very meaningful manner, despite having moved thousands of miles apart. Instagram has allowed us to quickly and easily share the small joys in our lives with all our friends and allows us to share in the experience of the memorable moments in their lives regardless of where we are located. Snapchat has given us a fun excuse to share images and videos (albeit somewhat silly ones at times) of our daily lives with our friends and acquaintances no matter what the situation. Texting makes it ridiculously easy to reach out to old friends and say “Hey man— just thinking of you; how are you doing?”
In short, social media makes it absurdly easy to stay TRULY connected with our loved ones regardless of our distance apart. We just have to use these platforms constructively!
The problem is that a lot of people aren’t using these platforms in a positive and beneficial manner. On Facebook, users choose to gripe and moan about their personal problems via their status updates increasing others’ negative perception of them and doing nothing to actually solve their problems. On Instagram, people choose to upload meaningless, ego-boosting selfies, which really adds no value for either the poster or the viewer. On Snapchat, obscene images and videos are exchanged back and forth which fosters a culture of promiscuity and sexual objectification. Via a text message conversation, 200+ lines of text conversation are exchanged whilst in the presence of actual, other people, and nothing meaningful is said the entire time. And, to top it all off, all of these vapid uses of social media often take place while in the presence of other people.
So before you take out your smartphone and start perusing Facebook, posting photos to Instagram, or texting your friends, I challenge you to ask yourself this:
“Is what I’m about to do going to add value to my life or to the lives of those with whom I am remotely communicating?”
If it is, great! Make sure to proceed with courteous discretion and prepare to reap the social benefits of living in the digital age. If not, well then, put the phone down. Look outward, immerse yourself in the external world, and interact with the people around you. A healthy balance of the two is what will enable us to grow our knowledge, relationships, and appreciation of this world.