“We do not learn by experience, but by our capacity for experience.” The Buddha
I have been warning against the massive shift of our attention to social media for years now. I wasn’t surprised when a bunch of studies recently came out confirming my worst fears- that social media is not really social and that the more that we do it, the worse we feel about ourselves. But new evidence suggests that the influence that social media is inflicting on our youth, may just be destroying it. Coined the I-Generation, the mental effects of social media statistics are both dangerously overwhelming and unparalleled in any previous generation. Not only are the rates of depression and suicide multiplying, but the actual capacity to be with other human beings, to share space is at its lowest ebb. Maybe this is how the hunger games started…
I myself, have two I-Gen kids and am deeply troubled at the ways that I have not recognized how many of the descriptions of low self esteem and feelings of being left out has reverberated in my own home. I believed that I have been supportive and attentive- but must admit that I never fully comprehended the damage that was being inflicted in the drive to be “instagram famous” which replaced the whiling away afternoons in the family room that characterized the adolescence of my older kids. I knew there was a problem with millennials and social media when I would walk into the family room and witness how my kids and their friends sat together- each completely transfixed on their own device. I would try to distract- offering movies and popcorn- but really I never got how big this problem truly was…
Now we know that social media has altered the landscape of everything from sexual activity to suicide rates. For me what is most troubling is the ways in which our youth have lost the desire and the courage to be together. Instead of fully participating in life they prefer to remain alone and watch it from a screen. I know from experience that we cannot tell anyone anything and shifting this generation back into life will not happen through coercion, fear mongering or guilt. Instead I think we need to collectively start asking different and better questions that may get us all thinking differently about how we allow technology to direct our days and this can help mitigate the negative mental effects of social media on our youth.
Following are a few that I rely on to pull myself and my I-generation kids back into the moment-
Where is your attention ?
The other day in the gym I realized that I was moving through my squatting and lifting practice without the slightest idea how many I had just done or how many I had left. I floated off somewhere, completely out of my body while lifting 25 pound weights. It woke me up, this heavy lifting without any attention. Does my body earn the same rewards when I am only half there? I don’t think so. I know the same is true in relationships. I can’t count the number of times when I am out in the world- at a restaurant, walking down the street, sitting in a park, or in the grocery aisle– witnessing people who arrived together but who aren’t together- each totally fixated on their own mobile devices. Even sometimes at our dinner table, I have to draw the line, over and over no phones.
Attention is life’s most precious currency. And we surrender ours too willingly in our efforts to see and be seen in a digital universe instead of feeling the people we are standing next to. What we hunger for is the real generosity and connection which happens in the moments when we are heard and seen in 3D by the people we care for. It brings tears to my eyes now when I remember back to how my toddlers would take their tiny hands and turn my face to look at them full on when I was on the phone. My distraction drove them to their worst behaviors and my full attention made them sparkle. Don’t trade away the golden currency of your life energy for virtual relationships inside techno gadgetry.
What don’t I know?
We all prefer to know than not know. We want certitude, we are committed to being right in ways that close the door to what we don’t and can’t know about a given situation. This is especially true about relating to other people and a big reason we opt for superficial online likes rather than participating in complex and often obtuse real life interactions. Even worse, social media apps feed our tendency to take small bits of data and draw sweeping and hurtful conclusions about others and situations. More often than not, what we see on line is a snippet- yes we may have been left out, but maybe there was nothing really to participate in. Carefully curated, Photoshop-ed images- a party does not make.
There is always more than what we can see, especially when we are only looking through the lens of social media. Keeping our mind open and curious not only will help us feel better, but hopefully will bring us into a realization of what is right in front of us in this present moment. Holding your attention on the unknown feels edgy sometimes, but it is also full of possibility. Try not knowing more often and see what opens up in front of you.
Can I risk my heart?
This is the question that leads to much of current social media addiction. Tragically, for too many people it only takes one heartbreaking experience for us to decide that it is too dangerous to let life come in so deeply. Whole worlds close down for us with that decision. As soon as we stop trusting our capacity to open our hearts to the people near us, there is a distance and guardedness that infiltrates every encounter. The intimacy we crave is locked at the door to our hearts. We mistake our own decision to close down and then our experiences start looking like everyone else is to blame. It’s a slippery slope that leads to a dark hole where all we can do is to distract ourselves from the emptiness of our daily experience.
Giving up the idea that we can figure everything out in our minds and having the courage to let things be as they are takes time, real time in shared experience with the people we are trying to love.
So I say it again. Put down your device. Ask better questions. Risk the real thing.