Laguna Parents, Take Heed
It is morning in late January and the Los Angeles Times says the temperature is going to be 87 degrees today. In January. My first thought is to write a column about global warming and the futility of denying its existence. But an article on page two of the California section dissuades me from that course and points me in another direction.
Some of my friends call me the “Laguna Luddite” because I rail against cell phones, overuse of the internet, and social media in general. I will never forget a story the late John Gardiner once told me that reinforces my feelings on these issues. He was walking along Heisler Park when he spotted a blue whale. He excitedly told a young man walking next to him, who had his face buried in his iPad, to take notice of this magnificent sight. Without looking up, he said, “I’ll catch it on YouTube.”
Back to the Times article entitled, “A reason to put the phone down?” The first sentence summarizes the contents: “A precipitous drop in the happiness, self -esteem and life satisfaction of American teens came as their ownership of smartphones rocketed from zero to 73% and they devoted an increasing share of their time on line.”
A University of Georgia study of the mood of over a million U.S. teens uncovered a sharp decline in happiness and satisfaction beginning in 2012. Well, maybe it was just a general funk that affected all U.S. teens. That notion is debunked by the study. The researchers found that adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities had higher psychological well-being. They were happier, had higher self -esteem, and professed more satisfaction with their lives.
I follow closely the work of MIT professor and media researcher Sherry Turkle who believes we have turned away from each other toward our phones. We have lost the key ingredient of communication, face- to- face conversation. Her latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation, the Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” posits that to empathize, grow, understand and engage in the world around us, we must have conversations. Smartphones make it all too easy to avoid face-to-face interactions.
She points out that without conversations, studies show that we are less empathetic, connected, creative and fulfilled. This could go a long way to explaining the results of the University of Georgia study. If you are less empathetic and fulfilled, it seems to follow that one would be less happy and satisfied. Professor Turkle notes that there has been a marked decline in empathy among college students, especially over the last 10 years. Pretty much coincides with the rise in cell phone use among this age group, doesn’t it?
I can hear the howls of defense coming from devoted smartphone users. Smartphones enable us to communicate with so much ease, they say, especially using messaging. I would say that this is not communication but mere connection. Professor Turkle says, “In person, we have access to the messages carried in the face, the voice, the body.” Face-to-face conversation is a humanizing experience. I fear as we rush headlong into the all-consuming digital age we are losing this important element of who we are.
A final warning to parents: Research shows that those who use social media the most have difficulty reading human emotions, including their own.
Smartphones may dazzle with technological wizardry, but at what cost, especially for the younger generation?
In the interests of full disclosure, I end this jeremiad with the answer to a question that some of you no doubt are asking. Do I have a smartphone? Yes, I do. But it is a very old one by today’s standards. I am pretty dumb when it comes to using it and that’s okay. I carry it around so I can receive calls while driving or traveling. I prefer writing notes or calling to texting, and I am on no form of social media.
Want to talk sometime to tell me how out of it I am? Let’s do it. You could run into me as I amble around town looking for inspiration or at The Lumberyard bar hoping the Angels will be on. This is going to be their year.
James Utt was saddened but not surprised to learn that the average teen texts over 3,300 times a month. His new book ”Laguna Tales and Boomer Wails” is available at Laguna Beach Books, Bushards, and, of course, on Amazon.