Life in the United States and around the world has grown incredibly complicated, driven by many different forces, of course, but none more significant than technology. Before the internet, the mass media (television, radio, newspapers, magazines) was how we got entertainment, news, inspirations, and first direct insights into how others lived, even if they were just characters in a TV show.
Parents worried their kids watched too much TV now have to add “too much time in front of the computer” to their list of worries for their kids. Today, our view into peoples’ lives is much more personal as people place content directly on the internet through sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. More than half of young people under 21 have already put personal content on the internet, and many thousands more do so each day. Today’s average 21 year old has already sent and received more than a quarter million e-mails and text messages. Young people meet and interact in ways nearly unrecognizable to their parents.
Adults, too, regularly use computers and e-mail. We want our computers to be ever faster, slimmer, and easier to carry. We want our cell phones to have service everywhere, take and send e-mail and pictures, and organize our days for us. We want data instantly, and our e-mails slightly faster than that. We not only want these things, we expect them. The howling you hear when an internet server “goes down” for even a short while is truly frightening.
We are collectively spending much more time alone with our gadgets, in front of screens doing things that typically only indirectly involve other people. Too many of us are working longer hours and therefore the time available to be with other people is less. In fact, in a study done at Stanford University, at least a quarter of the adult respondents who use the internet regularly report that it has reduced their time with friends and family and increased their feelings of social isolation. Similarly, in a study published recently in a pediatrics journal, the kids who spend the most time with gadgets tend to have the lowest grades, the greatest difficulty concentrating, and the highest reports of feelings of life dissatisfaction.
This past week, an important article on this same subject was published in the New York Times, now available online, called “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” (Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html). Written by Matt Richtel, the article explores how growing up in front of screens of all shapes and sizes is changing brain functions, especially of young people. The news isn’t all bad, of course, but there are definite down sides to how technology is making it more difficult to develop and maintain focus and develop social skills.
Can our heavy reliance on technology contribute to the rising rates of depression? Is it significant that as societies westernize, their rates of depression increase? More importantly, how can we continue to rely on technology as we surely will but do so in ways that don’t make it harder for us to develop the capacity to enjoy life? Technology isn’t going to go away, of course, and no one is suggesting it can or should. But, it may make a big difference in people’s lives to make a point of limiting how much time they spend in front of a screen. That time could be used in other ways that enhance life, diversifying and adding ways of feeling good, whether it’s spending social time with others, getting out into nature, creating something meaningful, or doing something else that’s positive and good for the soul.
Photo by chmeredith, available under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial license.
Last reviewed: 28 Nov 2010