Children, The Internet, Addiction, And The Good Life

Love is the killer app – book title

Kate T. Parker’s pictures usually show girls doing what they love to do. They dance, wrestle against boys, play soccer, make music, build mud forts, and help their friends. She lovingly depicts ordinary-extraordinary girls who are athletes, artists, musicians, and leaders. Usually.

She also shows girls in trouble, sometimes. Girls who could use a helping-hand. I believe that the picture above is one of those pictures. In it we see a girl in the pitch black, being lit by her phone. That is not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with our smart phones. But I tend to agree with Steve Jobs that children should have limited access to modern technology.

“They haven’t used it [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Steve Jobs

I know kids who use their phones to stay in touch with their parents, to text friends, to upload stuff they are proud of or fascinated by onto their Snapchat, Pinterest or Facebook accounts. If I  love it when a kid I know shows me video of a skateboarding trick they mastered or of their dance recital.  Technology, – whether it is a bicycle or a smartphone – is great when it helps us grow, share, learn, create, connect, and challenge ourselves.

The problem is that technology is not neutral.  most people use the internet much of the time in the same way that a smoker uses cigarettes, or a gambler uses slot machines. People, including me, use the internet to fill holes in our lives. We use it because we don’t believe that anything else will make us feel the way it does. We feel compelled to check our texts and emails in the middle of conversations, pleasant walks, dinners and even, I’m sure, moments of, ahem, intimacy with our partners.

Why?

You know as well as I do that it’s because we feel almost forced to check our texts, tweets, emails, facebook, and/or snapchat. Think of the last time you left your phone at home. How did you respond? Did you panic a little bit? I’d like to suggest that unless you are a 911 operator or you are a) not at a hospital, b) alone, and c) about to go into labour, your world will probably not fall apart if you don’t use the phone for a while. In your heart, you agree with me, Steve Jobs, and, well, Buddha that sanity requires unhooking from our distractions for big chunks of time. In our day-to-day lives, however, we often choose compulsive internet use over living the good life.

This is especially true for kids. I understand that a real estate agent will keep her phone on at ungodly hours. Even I have taken client calls on weekends once or twice when I believed a client might be in trouble – that has to do with me serving my community. The same can’t be said for your twelve-year-old. Or your toddler. They need 24/7/365 internet, phone, or text access even less than you do.

Part of our compulsion/addiction is chemical. Several years ago, Dr. Ritivo pointed out that in some ways our brains respond physically to Facebook the same way they do to slot machines.

[T]he inside dope on Facebook is dopamine, an organic chemical released in the brain and associated with pleasurable feelings. – Dr. Ritvo in Psychology Today,

It’s amazing to think that using Facebook (and other websites) releases pleasure chemicals in our brains.  Dopamine comes when we play sports or do exercise as well as when we play the slots or smoke cigarettes. Facebook is less healthy than playing sports or working out and is highly addictive (like cigarettes and slot machines). It is designed to capture our attention and to not let go. But there are elements to Facebook (and slot machines) that don’t exist with bicycles or lifting weights.

Dopamine is part of why we love Facebook, but only maybe 1/5th. Most of the allure of our technology is social and has to do with trying to numb deep feelings of disconnect from those around us.  We suffer from FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and that fear makes us miss out on real life, on real connection, on a non-distracted way of feeling good about ourselves. The less time we actually spend with people doing things that might challenge or bore us, but which are nevertheless necessary parts of deep human connection, the more tv’s and smartphones become our surrogate teachers, guides, friends, and lovers. Without deep human connections, real face-to-face connection, we feel more and more empty and in need of the sorts of distractions that the internet provides.

It’s a perfect vicious circle. And it’s the same circle that almost all addicts get caught up in.

Addiction is the psychological state of feeling you need the drug to give you the sensation of feeling calmer, or manic, or numbed, or whatever it does for you – Johann Hari

As a culture we have come to seek the sort of solace and comfort online that we used to get from being alone in nature, with a good book, playing sports with friends, or annoying our siblings at family dinners. One big reason for this is because nature, books, sports, and annoying our siblings are not designed to be as totally captivating as our technologies are. Unlike the digital world which always offers a quick fix, the real world is not at all immediately gratifying. It is much harder to create a genuine and meaningful friendship than to compulsively check our texts, retweet someone or like them on Facebook.

I believe that the Kate T. Parker has taken a picture of the biggest form of addiction in the 21st century. As i said before, she has also taken many, many pictures of the cure for addiction: spending time with friends, playing on teams, creating things by ourselves, enjoying nature. As Johann Hari has so brilliantly demonstrated, “The opposite of addiction is connection”. The way to use technology, any technology, as a tool rather than as an addictive substance, is to ensure that we have time away from it with other people and things worth our time, effort, and love. For me, it’s my family, my exercise equipment, my church, my clients, and a lot of other things, too. For you and the kids in your life, it will be a different mix of things and people you love and that love to challenge you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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