I’m used to the multitude of stories in the news and in other media about how digital technologies and devices are ruining our ability to concentrate, build relationships, or otherwise be decent human beings. For example, Brian Williams talked about “Facebook Envy” on the NBC nightly news a few nights ago, noting that experts say “Facebook Envy” causes depression. Apparently Facebook Envy is a phenomenon in which you see the awesome things your friends are doing and you get sad, because you wish you were going on that Hawaiian vacation or getting married or cuddling so-and-so’s cute cat. Jon Stewart also weighed in… watch his hysterical commentary on Facebook depression, porn on Twitter, and robots taking over for people in factories:
This is really nothing new. As Nancy Baym points out in her book (see post from last month), we had similar concerns about telephones at the turn of the previous century.
But in the past week or so, I feel like I’ve seen more doomsday messages about technology than usual. For example, the following blog post ran across my Facebook feed the other day entitled “How to Miss a Childhood.” The blogger — a mom and former teacher — talks about how today’s parents are missing out on their children’s childhoods because they are glued to their devices. She provides a recipe of actions in which you can engage if you want to miss your child’s childhood, including:
- Neglect daily rituals like tucking your child into bed or nightly dinner conversation because you are too busy with your online activity.
- Lose your temper with your child when he “bothers” you while you are interacting with your hand-held electronic device.
- Have the phone to your ear when she gets in or out of the car. Convince yourself a loving hello or goodbye is highly overrated.
- Decide the app you’re playing is more important than throwing the ball in the yard with your kids. Even better, yell at them to leave you alone while you play your game.
Those are just a few of my favorites; her list is much longer.
I want to qualify what I’m about to say with a very big disclaimer — I don’t disagree with this blogger’s argument that actions like these are downright inexcusable, and that if you do these things regularly to anyone in your life, you need to re-evaluate some things.
But what frustrates me is the deterministic implication from all of these media outlets — blogs and news alike — that it’s the technology that is doing these things to us, or that technology is somehow making us worse people than we would be if we unplugged, turned off, disconnected, or signed off. As Stewart notes, “Facebook Envy” or other associated side effects of being a tech junkie might not be the result of the tech, but of the individual’s uncritical use of the tech.
He says, “if you get upset because other people are happy, it seems your problem might not be Facebook, but that you’re an asshole.”
Analogously, if you’re so plugged into your devices that you’re ignoring your children, the problem might not be your devices, but that you’re being a bad parent.
I’m not a parent, so I suppose most of what I just said can be ignored as naive (I find that whenever I have an opinion about parenting, it tends to get invalidated by those who are parents, which is fair, but at the same time… sorta not). However, I strongly feel that condemning social media for “making us depressed” or condemning smartphones for making us “disconnect” from the things that really matter in our lives is shortsighted, and ignores what might be larger issues in our society — that we are not teaching adolescents (or adults, for that matter) how to use digital technologies to make meaningful connections while maintaining other forms of communication that provide different and rich opportunities to build relationships. I’m ready to stop being bombarded with “technology is ruining humanity” rhetoric and ready to see some questions about how, when, why, and to what ends we put our digital selves to work.