A few days ago I signed off from Facebook, turned off notifications, and removed the app from the front page of my phone. Before I did so I posted the following.
Due to losing:
focus creativity balance time compassion energy sleep attention contemplation perspective humanity…
I will be taking a break from Facebook YES AGAIN SHUT UP.
for the foreseeable future
which means I’ll probably be back in a week
(if I’m realistic)
(if my actions reflect my values, LOL).
Seriously I have not written anything in weeks. Or really read a book. This has got to stop.
You can still reach me by Messenger (which is no more evil than Facebook already was so just stop), and I’ll still be on Instagram because it’s the least egregious waste of my time energy focus creativity…
BUT NO PINTEREST because it’s been taken over by pumpkin spice circa 2009 anyway.
See you IRL, or will I? Because parties are only announced on Facebook now so I won’t even have the option of saying yes I will attend and then deciding at the last minute to stay home and watch The League instead. My social life might take a serious hit but I just have to take that risk. For my art.
Here’s what I want to say about life without Facebook. This morning I woke up and did not reach for my phone. My kids had friends spend the night so they were already up and playing. I took a stack of books from beside my bed — including The Martian, Shining Girls, and All Joy & No Fun — all good books that have languished on my bedside table because I’m ponderously slow at reading now — even though I used to rip through books in a weekend — because I spend most of my time on a device hopping between tabs and apps. I read for a while in the living room. Then I made breakfast, and while I made breakfast I only made breakfast. I didn’t take breaks to respond to notifications.
I drank my coffee, washed the dishes, and had a real conversation with Jeremy. Then I watered the garden, harvested tomatoes and peppers, tore out the dying cucumbers, picked sunflowers, and decided to plant some greens. Jeremy and I walked down to the apple tree to see if there were any apples to be had.
During this time I responded to one text regarding pickup schedules. I thought about checking Facebook or reading one of the 50+ articles I’ve saved on my device at least a dozen times. But I did not.
I came back into the house and fed the dog. Then I sat down at my laptop (where I am now), and began to write.
Which is to say, I required no more than a 12-hour break from social media (7 hours of which were spent sleeping) before I had the inspiration, motivation, energy, time, focus, and attention span to write, for the first time in many weeks.
Here’s what I want to say about pervasive Internet connectivity. Most people I know struggle with social media and connected devices. There may be perfectly balanced persons in the world who do not have these struggles, but I don’t personally know any — especially those folks identified as “digital natives.” I do know people who are so enamored of connected technologies that they have no concern or shame about having a phone practically embedded in their right hands. But most people I know are like me — impressed, but resistant. In a constant dance of two steps into the tech, one step back.
The most anti-technology family I know — off-grid biodynamic farmers, Waldorf parents and staunch evangelists of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of living, who barely have reception at their valley farm — still require a smartphone for business purposes. For my own part, I did not anticipate that owning a smartphone would be such a problem. Relative to my fellow Millennials, I’m conservative about new technology and specifically suspicious of social media. I take breaks, set limits, and maintain the belief that social media is a very distant cousin of true human connection. And yet. And yet. I have not written in weeks. And the sad, embarrassing reason is that I have been too distracted by and absorbed in the world inside my phone.
It’s not an addiction. It’s a compulsion. The rat who knows that if he pushes long enough on the bar (the refresh button) he’ll be rewarded with a tasty treat (a fresh distraction) is not addicted to the bar, or the treat; he is compelled simply by the erratic but irresistible promise of a reward. Even if the reward is really not that great, as I can only imagine pellets of compressed sawdust to be.
The pellet of compressed sawdust of a new notification, post, like, article, comment, update is irresistible not because I need it, or even enjoy it, but because I can be distracted by it. For a tiny moment, the world feels fresh again.
I just hit the space-bar twice expecting a period to appear. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve really written anything.
Here’s what I want to say about children who are exposed to media. Most of the time I temper my thoughts and feelings on this issue because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Here’s how my opinions form: whole and discrete, like Athena borne from her father’s head. Then I whittle them down for public consumption, making ten-thousand allowances for individual variation. Now I’ll give you the Athena.
Children who are persistently exposed to media — television, movies, video games, and connected devices — are quite identifiable even at a distance. They hold a thrumming energy in their bodies. Words, phrases, sound effects, and jingles erupt from their mouths at random, as if they are off-gassing some chemical too potent to be absorbed or naturally excreted. They struggle to maintain eye contact or to stay seated when appropriate. Their play is mostly consumed with processing the images and scenarios they’ve consumed through media, most of which is way, way beyond their developmental stage. They don’t project a human-shaped shadow and explore their thoughts and emotions within it; they insert themselves into a created character and behave in the expected fashion. They don’t create their own songs; they sing theme songs. They don’t draw pictures that spring from the world around and within them, but rather images from movies, television shows, and video games. They fixate on the same pictures, voices, characters, songs, and events with little spontaneous creativity. Their focus is limited and scattered. They often have a restricted range of often obsessive interests. Their bodies move in the prescribed fashion of their favorite characters and stories, with little presence or expansion. Their posture is crooked, their shoulders slumped, their movements tight and jerky, and they are generally irritable, struggle to find the limits of their physical space, attempt to dominate the people around them, are disrespectful of property, are prone to outbursts of a violent nature, and above all are interminably, irascibly bored.
Although the current crisis in American education can be attributed to dozens of problems, I believe pervasive, intensive, early media exposure to be at the top of the list. It’s unreasonable to expect that children who spend most of their time sitting and staring with, by turns, obsessive and scatter-shot focus can learn normally. This is not a normal state of affairs for any human brain or body, but especially a developing juvenile brain and body. And as in so many areas of human health, when lifestyle changes are not up for consideration, medication may be the only option to fill the gap.
A recent NPR segment discussed about a shortage of mental health services in universities. Students are seeking these services in greater numbers than ever before as stigma against mental illness has declined. This is a great thing. So I was confused when the spokesperson referred specifically to procrastination. “If someone has to wait to see a mental health professional a little procrastination at the beginning of the semester can turn into a full-blown crisis by the end,” was the gist of what she said. WTF? I thought. Then I realized, ah yes. A student who is so attached to his or her device that s/he cannot put it down to study and feels anxiety at being parted from it at the classroom door is not mentally well.
Can we accept that constant access to connected technologies might affect our mental well-being? Or are we too acquiescent because we are just as attached and anxious?
Here’s what I want to say about Waldorf education. My children attend a Waldorf school because I want them to stay human. To maintain the beautiful, fluid movements of their healthy young bodies. To sing without shame. To run so hard that sleep comes easily. To meet another’s eyes and hold that connection. To hold a single focus nearly indefinitely when required. To understand the natural rhythms of a day filled with work. To be moving most of the time, as humans should. To explore and respect the full range of human experience. To truly love to learn, to walk into every new situation without fear, to embrace rather than avoiding effort, to be open and exposed without anxiety, to fail and shrug it off, to try a hundred new things so they know exactly who they are and what they can do, and why they should do it, or not. To never once ask “Will this be on the test?” when learning of a critical human development or error, but rather to resonate.
In Waldorf schools we battle incessantly about the encroachment of media on our lives. The public and charter schools on all sides of us are receiving shipments of computers and iPads so children as young as 5 can participate in Common Core testing. Meanwhile, the only computer on my kids’ entire campus is in the admin office. Yet, though we are ostensibly a phone-free campus, nobody really leaves their phone in the car. We can’t bear to be parted. What if something happens, what if the notification tone rings and we’re not there to receive it.
Parents’ claws come out when you suggest that twelve hours of video games on the weekend might affect their children’s attention span, energy level, teacher responsiveness, and relating to other children. Because they need that time. And besides, they spend almost as much time on their own devices, and it’s not really affecting them…
Waldorf education is accused of being regressive because of its condemnation of media exposure, but as my children grow in this school I realize that it is actually intensely progressive. Consider the popularity of Waldorf schools among tech executives, or that Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his own kids use an iPad. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the questionable ethics of the 1% restricting their own children from using the very compulsion-inducing technologies that have made them wealthy… Just consider: what sort of human beings are churned out from an education system that is based on standardization via glazed-eye technology? I would say, standardized human beings. If the future workforce is flooded with standardized human beings, then what will be valued? Creative human beings.
But fuck the workplace. What kind of people do we want our children to be? How do we hope for them to live, apart from how they make a living? And how much is “screen time” going to help them get there? Be honest now.
Here’s what I want to say about time. I’m 30 years old. My children are 9 and almost 8. I have only ten years left to live with them.
Even if you’re on your smartphone at the park, you’re doing fine. I believe that. I fucking despise uppity mother-bashing. And now that I’m self-employed I understand more intimately the challenges of smartphone-assisted constant availability. Do we need to see every last movement our children make? Do we need to be in constant contact with them? Will they shrivel up if we miss something? Nope, nope, nope. My parenting can best be described as benign neglect. I used to get dirty looks from mothers at the park because I sat on the bench and read a book instead of climbing through the jungle gym or going down the slide with my kids. This is not my wavelength when I point out that I only have ten years left to live with my children and I don’t want their primary picture-memory of me to be sitting on the couch, and in the car, and at a meeting, and on the bench, and at the beach, with a screen in my face.
Hospice volunteering gave me the idea that the value of a life is not really intrinsic. Plenty of lives are well and truly wasted. I’ve already well and truly wasted a HUGE chunk of my life being distracted and afraid. But every day (cliche alert!) is another opportunity to try out that whole being-truly-alive thing. Can we be truly alive while scrolling for the twenty-eighth time through Facebook? I dunno, man. I really doubt it.
Here’s what I want to say about reality. I’m well-aware of all of the arguments against everything I’ve said so far. I know intimately the defenses of video games, television, movies, and connected devices. I realize that I took a risk with that paragraph about media-exposed children. So here’s where I equivocate.
I watch TV every single day. Every day! I spend most of the day in my kitchen, with a Netflix guilty pleasure on the laptop screen — right now it’s Gossip Girl — or an audiobook coming from the speaker connected to my phone. In the evenings, after the kids are in bed, the dishes are washed, and the dog is fed, Jeremy and I sit on the couch and find something to watch on Netflix. And not even, like, an edifying documentary. Right now, most nights, it’s The League. Pretty much the trashiest television possible. It does not improve me as a human being in any way.
This morning my kids watched a cartoon while I sat here on this chair and typed this essay. I don’t even know which cartoon. And on the weekends they are allowed to use tablet-based game apps for an hour.
I still have a smartphone. I still use it daily. Sometimes hourly. Although I left Facebook, I accept that it’s most likely temporary. And since I left Facebook I’m using Instagram MUCH more often. I have all sort of excuses for why this is okay.
I intend to continue blogging for the next ten years as I have for the past ten years. To this end, I am currently staring at a screen while my children play nearby.
I want to believe that it’s possible to include media technologies in one’s life without becoming a complete slave to them. I am really trying. I came down off the mountain where we lived in a tiny house without Internet or normal electricity so I could focus my life on the Middle Way rather than the extremes that are so much easier and more attractive to me. I strive to avoid giving my children any great walls to push against, so they can learn intrinsic self-mastery. I hope for them to be both high-minded and populist. Better than I am.
My friend Mel always tells me, “Don’t let perfect be an enemy of the good.” Bullshit! I used to say. If you can’t do it right, why bother doing it at all? If you’re not living your ideals line by line, why even fucking bother?
I get it now. Perfection is impossible and constant failure is demoralizing. But if you allow real life to keep your ideals in check, your ideals will keep real life in check. My ideals combined with real life inspire me to say “That’s enough, go play now” after one cartoon. They inspire me to leave Facebook when it becomes overwhelming, to read a little more often than I watch trashy television, to take up a handwork skill to balance my smartphone usage, rather than running away to another tiny house on another mountain where I don’t have to continue the hard work of learning, as always, that incredibly boring life task of Middle Way moderation.