I was in a meeting yesterday with other K-12 English educators, listening to a panel of professionals and college English chairs discuss the areas in which our students will need to be competent for college and careers.
“Teach them how to have eye contact and be able to speak in front of a group of people,” one of them said. “They’re so used to staring at a screen, they don’t really know how to have human interactions.”
“Teach them how to write about themselves in a college personal narrative entrance essay,” another said. “They really struggle with being able to write about themselves.”
Which is ironic, my table discussed, since it seems all they ever do is talk about themselves on social media. Yes, but that’s in brief posts where they only post the best, most flattering views of themselves. And most of the time it’s through pictures with filters that make them appear even better than real life. They don’t know how to go truly in-depth, beyond 140 characters, to the stuff that really matters – the core of who they are.
The screen is making them think they’re getting quality connection time with friends and family. When in reality, it might be stealing some of their truest soul and leaving them unable to cope with reality.
It frightens me just a little bit – especially when I turn around and see the same thing happening to myself. I’ve always said I never wanted to be addicted to something or enslaved to something … but I think the phone has silently crept in and started attaching itself to me like a gross fungus.
It worries me – the need to have it always close at hand, the urge to quickly check social media platforms when the notifications pop up on my phone, the call to look at texts as soon as the ding alerts me. There have been so many recent articles written about the harm that screen time (particularly our phones) and social media does to our brains, and I’m anxious to not fall prey to these dangers – even though I’m sure I already have.
That is not to say that we can’t fight back, though – and I, for one, want to make a concerted effort to spend more “soul time” with others and less “screen time” with myself. I want to remind myself through the following practices that true connection and relationship happens with others when we look them in the eyes and listen deeply to what they’re saying. I want to create habits that cause me to care more about deep ideas and meaningful thoughts than shallow sound bites and mindless videos and memes. I want to believe that I don’t have to follow the tends of my generation – I can choose to set myself apart so that genuine, meaningful life can be lived with others.
So while there will always be exceptions to the rules, I want to start breaking myself of these bad habits and embracing the opposite, meaningful habits:
- In a room full of people – at a party, family gathering, church, etc. – I want to choose not to be on my phone at all unless absolutely necessary. We use our phones as escapes and substitutes, and the message that I’m sending when I’m on my phone in a group of people is: You’re boring me, and I need to find more enjoyable stimulation elsewhere. Or, I feel uncomfortable in this setting, so I’m going to hide behind my phone so that I don’t actually have to engage with other people.
- When engaging in a one-on-one conversation with someone else, I don’t want to pull out my phone at all for any reason, unless it’s an emergency. I want my attention to be focused and undistracted, and I want the other person to feel honored and appreciated. As soon as my phone is pulled out, I’m sending the message that whatever text or notification that came through is more important than them.
- When I’m by myself, I want to be conscious of how many times I’m checking social media – and taking stock of my motivations. If I’m using it as a way to fill boredom or dissatisfaction, I need to ask God to lead me to more productive pursuits with my time.
- I want to be known as someone who doesn’t need her phone all the time to fill in empty moments, awkward moments, or boring moments. I want to fill those moments with the chance to look at the world around me and seize the opportunities to build relationships. Maybe it won’t always be possible – but even if I’m people-watching instead of screen-watching, I’m building my relational capacities and the ability to empathize and understand those around me.
Screen time is not the evil one. But it certainly can become so when we elevate it above other things, most notably our relationships with others. We need our hearts to be aware of our tendency to cling to screen time, and we need to guard against this tendency. Others might think us a bit old-fashioned in this tech-attached world, but it’s worth it in order to not lose pieces of our souls to machines.
Let’s let the glare of the screen fade away … and let the reflection of another’s soul fill our eyes instead. We might find it brings much greater joy and contentment than any newsfeed ever could.