Following Nelson Mandela’s passing, I’ve been remembering my own time in South Africa years ago. It was the summer of 2008, and I spent two weeks falling in love with that part of the world. To this day, I’m convinced I left half my heart there. Partnering with a local NGO, I was traveling with a team devoted to the work of AIDS relief. We spent much time in some of the poorest parts of the country meeting some of the richest souls I’ve ever known. During those days, I was ruined in all the right places.
For those of you who have traveled abroad and have walked among unspeakable poverty and human suffering, you know how the wealth of our privileged culture made me both grateful and nauseous upon my return home. Indulging in long showers washed me with guilt. The comforts of home weren’t as soothing in the presence of great global need. The sight of food on my plate and drinking water flowing from my faucet brought me to tears for nearly a month.
It was in this soul-space that my cell phone died. I knew the day was coming and I was long overdue to ride the wave of new technology. It was time for my first smartphone. I stood in a long line waiting for my “portal to the new frontier” while carrying memories of the food lines of starving South African bellies. There are few moments where I’ve felt that kind of internal struggle between two worlds. In a maelstrom of gratitude and guilt, I knew that only one of those worlds was my homeland: the one with opulence, resourced privilege, and the Apple Store. So, I stayed in line and I bought my first iPhone.
And we quickly fell love.
He was beautiful and shiny and I couldn’t get enough of him. We were inseparable. I hung on his every noise, eagerly awaiting his next text and the sound of his call. For the first time in my sweet cell phone life, I had the world at my fingertips. The Internet was seconds away and there were boundless cyber galaxies to explore. I was in App heaven, and I was hooked.
My heart leaped with every sound that little cutie made and I couldn’t imagine life without him again. And then I realized… somewhere between our first iDate and my clingy cell phone co-dependence, I had become pathetic.
I had also become addicted. And, I knew I was in good cultural company.
Never before in our history have we (especially adolescents and young adults) had access to the abundance of technology available to our culture today. The options and ease of conversation via technology has transformed our lives. Few can deny the ways our culture has changed. What we have yet to uncover are the effects such change will have in the lives of this generation. Care to guess?
I’ve been in the presence of many young people who speak of a desire to enjoy connecting with friends and family through modes of technology alongside balancing well personal relationships and outside activities and interests. They seek realms of reality before entering virtual worlds. We can rest easy in these choices. However, not all know such balance or perspective. As such, their behavior surrounding technology mirrors behaviors of addiction. This is cause for concern.
Internet use has become an everyday part of our culture. FaceBook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Snapchat have become household names. A social phenomena and an integral means of connecting, their use can be a fun and creative means of being with friends. At other times, its use can be dangerous and socially damaging. It is imperative young people using these mediums distinguish between real and virtual worlds, and are able to emotionally respond congruently and appropriately in each of these domains. It is also vital Internet communication be complementary to social relationships, not replacing their presence and/or being used as a means of avoiding human interaction.
As teens and their families navigate the use of technology in their home, I’ve noticed these websites have become a source of concern and tension among families—as teens desire freedom in these regards and as parents seek to implement limitations inspired by care and protection. Parents, as you and your children have conversation about their use of the Internet, I encourage you to explore www.safeteens.com for further information and resources as you seek to increase their safety and the ability to make wise decisions. In the meantime, I offer the following:
Never speak with people you haven’t already met in person or who haven’t met a close friend or family member. When communicating with online acquaintances and friends becomes more important than the real people in your world, it’s time to re-evaluate Internet access. Never publicly post personal or private information. If you don’t want the entire world to see it, think twice.
In addition to websites and Internet blogs, the use of cell phones and text messaging has also become a consistent means of communicating among this generation, young and old alike. When used to enhance relationship and convey important information, it can be an invaluable tool. When its use begins to take over one’s life or its use begins to take the place of genuine human conversation, the impact can be destructive to relationship and to the social development of our youth. This is a vital developmental time for our young people as they navigate relationship—it’s crucial technology not infringe the ability to practice social skills of personal relationship.
For those texting: Keep it simple. If you’re texting paragraphs, pick up the phone instead. Discuss emotions or decisions about relationships by phone or in person. Avoid text conversations about difficult topics where misunderstandings often take place. Avoid gossip. Messages can be forwarded and consequences are messy.
As a parent, when should you be concerned? The following are indicators of technology hindering an adolescent’s well-being: an excessive need to be near and/or to access technology mediums, irritability when denied access or given restrictions to technology, anxiety or panic when not able to respond immediately to emails, texts, or phone messages, anger directed toward parents when fostering uninterrupted family activities (such as mealtimes or outings), interference in obtaining sufficient sleep or maintaining habits or self-care, declining academic performance, increasing distance or conflict in family relationships with parents or siblings. These are indicators of addiction.
Not long ago, I heard from a daughter and her father. They conveyed a most heartwarming story of how they had come to use email in their relationship. They had discovered email to be a sacred medium together, sharing stories of their day, exchanging questions for one another, and conveying reflections of their relationship. Often, they would find themselves writing words which felt difficult to share in person. Email had inspired new ways of coming together in their relationship. It opened space for later face-to-face conversation. How wonderful! Where technology is used to enhance and nourish a relationship, it has the potential to be an asset. Where it leads to isolation or disconnection, it has the power to destroy.
Remember how I mentioned I had met some of the richest souls I’ve known in the poorest of South Africa’s townships? It’s been over five years since my time there and I still find myself envious of the joy and the soulfulness I witnessed. In the absence of earbuds and technology devices, human connection flourished. Hearts were filled with relationships, real flesh-and-blood relationships. The privilege of knowing your neighbor and being connected to community was the practice of everyday life. No phone frenzy, no screen time. Just people. There are important lessons to learn here.
So, what happened to my own smartphone love affair? We’re still going strong, but our relationship is full of boundaries now. Addiction averted. I kicked him out of my bed years ago. My sleep is too important. He never comes before my relationships. If I’m with a person, he’s in my purse. And, I leave him home alone… often. It’s good for a girl to take a break and remind herself who she is without a phone attached to her identity. And, whenever I feel too clingy again, I tuck him away and remember my beloved South Africa. I remember the world is big and full of life; and I remember that if I’m not careful, technology-fever can rob me of everything that truly matters.