Three years ago, I wrote about this very topic and yet now, I feel more compelled than ever before to write on this subject. Back in 2019 I quoted Nicholas Carr from his controversial article some ten years earlier in The Atlantic Monthly, entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In the article he suggested that while we might be reading more than we did in the 70’s and 80’s, we were doing “a different kind of reading” that required a different kind of thinking and perhaps a “new sense of self.” I remember when I read the article my mind rephrased it to read…”a lost sense of self.”
Now, as we emerge from a 2-year pandemic the likes of which none of us had ever before experienced in our lives, we are not only struggling to find our ‘sense of self’ all over again but we find ourselves dealing with a number of mental health issues like never before. Both adults and adolescents find themselves suffering from feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation. In the workplace employees are complaining about feeling distracted and downright exhausted, both of which have contributed to the ‘great resignation.’ Even those who serve God as members of the clergy are being challenged. In a recent study done by the Barna Group, Inc., 42% of the pastors polled in the survey reported considering quitting full-time ministry within the past year. The top three reasons – stress, isolation and political division.
Now, if we are seeing increasing numbers of people with mental health issues amongst our population, mental health issues that often times impact the safety and well-being of others in our society, I contend we need to be asking ourselves why are we now experiencing this onslaught of mental health issues? And, yes, maybe it’s time for us to realize that what we are dealing with in terms of mental health issues is tied to the technology that is part of our everyday life. After all, almost 15 years after Nicholas Carr wrote his article on our dependency on Google, we find ourselves totally immersed in a 24/7, non-stop, wired world where technology is largely controlling us instead of us controlling the technology.
Certainly, the pandemic didn’t help any of us. It drove us into isolation and using something called “Zoom” to help us engage both socially and in the workplace. Now, it was a ‘nice to have’, but it did not take the place of real, face-to-face human interaction. But more than ever, we now have adopted a mindset that we cannot live, even breathe, without having a smart phone in our hands 24/7! For most adolescents (adults, too?) it is how their day begins and ends, by checking their smart phone on the night stand (usually within arm’s reach) as though it were going to tell them how to live their life successfully throughout the day.
As I write this blog in the early morning hours, my wife and I are enjoying a wonderful week at the beach celebrating our wedding anniversary. And as we walk the beach, what do I see? Everyone sitting in lounge chairs looking not at the beautiful seascape, the pelicans soaring above the crystal-clear, turquoise water and the waves crashing on the white sand, but instead, they are staring into the screen of their smart phone. Some are talking on their phones, some are maybe in a Zoom meeting, but whatever they are doing, I have to ask, “Is this how we now relax on the beach?”
One of my sons recently attended a wedding out of town that involved many of his high school friends he has not seen in years. When I asked him how he enjoyed the event, he merely said, “Well, everybody seemed to know what everyone else was doing in their life because we follow each other on Facebook (Meta) and really, most of the people don’t seem to know how to converse anymore.” When I asked him what he meant by that, he said, “Well, a lot of the people just seemed to be on their cell phones texting people and taking the occasional selfie. It wasn’t like there were a lot of conversations going on.” Is that really who we have become?
His comments took me right back to a quote from Ben Sasse’s book, THEM – Why We Hate Each Other and How We Heal.
“We’re losing our ability to read closely and think carefully. We’re losing the ability to focus deeply on important work. We’re likelier to spend our time seeking validation from our digital “friends” than to spend time with flesh-and-blood friends. We insulate ourselves behind filtered Instagram photos. And all the time we become lonelier, parched for genuine community. We’ve become addicted to distraction.”
So, let me make a suggestion. We all need to learn to put our cell phones down. I get it, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Yes, I too have a cell phone, and yes, I also have responsibilities in my life. I am married. I have a beautiful wife who I love dearly. I have two adult children of my own and four fantastic stepsons. Through my second marriage, I have 9 grandchildren and I have multiple responsibilities that involve my work with a Christian radio station, a not-for-profit that I Co-direct, and officiating responsibilities in two different sports. But, I am NOT a brain surgeon or a cardiologist! If I miss a phone call and cannot return it for an hour or even two, three hours, no one is going to die!
When I go to the health club to get a good workout, I leave my cell phone in the trunk of my car so I can totally focus on my workout and the people I interact with at the gym (if they will put down their cell phones long enough to talk to me!). Same is true when I take an hour bike ride or an afternoon walk. I choose to leave my cell phone at home. For some reason, I still enjoy the sounds and sights of nature when I am out in the world. And, if Google is making me/us stupid, it is because we make the choice to let it make us stupid. We choose to use Google as much as we do because it is the simplest way to conduct research on virtually any topic.
But, if we truly want to address mental health issues in this country we need to learn how to manage our use of technology and that all begins with how we use our cell phones. Yes, cell phones are wonderful and they are here to stay. I cannot imagine having to live without the GPS technology we all use today. But, taking constant selfies? Watching non-sensical cat videos and the pure junk on TikTok and Instagram, etc., it’s a waste of time, a waste of life!
Our 24/7 obsession with our cell phones and screens has largely not been of our choosing. It has largely been willed upon us by major corporate entities, social media companies, high-tech start-up gaming companies and every business entity that wants to own part of our mindshare. Consider this excerpt from Trevor Haynes’ blog entitled, “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.”
“I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained. In Palihapitiya’s talk, he highlighted something most of us know but few really appreciate: smartphones and the social media platforms they support are turning us into bona fide addicts.
It may be bad that our addiction to technology is stripping us of our “sense of self”, but if it is at the root of the growing mental health issues in our country, that’s a much more serious problem. Somehow, we need to get to a point where we can comfortably control our use of the technology instead of letting it control us.
I wish it was as simple as saying just put your cell phone and tablet down and scale back your usage, but it’s not that easy. It’s an addiction and we need to treat it as such.
My advice? Schedule a week for yourself at the beach and leave your cell phone in your hotel room during the day. Enjoy the sun, the surf, and whoever you are with. Think about how blessed you are and how grateful you are for your health, where you live, your home and all the good things in your life. It just may help your mental health.