Digital Disconnected From The World Around Us

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News


We fear for the creative spirit of our younger generations. They spend so much time constantly digitally engaged with their phones, iPads, and computers that they have little freedom or mental energy for creative thought.

Those very same tools that have opened up the world to them with unfathomable information at their fingertips is also being used to immerse themselves in the trivial. They endlessly check on the latest Facebook post, the text that arrived 2 seconds ago, an Instagram photo that was posted by a friend, or a Snapchat post. And, most certainly, this isn’t just an affliction of the young.

In a recent The New York Times column writer Jane E. Brody tells of an interview she read featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway musical sensation “Hamilton.”  In it he is asked where he finds the time to be creative.

“The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life,” he said.

We could relate. Insights, creative thought, solutions to problems, come when your mind has time to wander. They come when driving in a silent car – no radio, no phone, just the sound of the engine, the road and the wind. They come while shaving in the morning. They come while washing the few dishes in the sink by hand and staring out the window. They come when working on a project in the garage. They come when simply daydreaming.
Young people today have little time for their minds to wander as they are incessantly, addictively, engaged with their electronic devices.

Concerned about what she was seeing happening with young people, New York psychotherapist Nancy Colier looked more deeply into the digital device behavior of people. Her work led to the new book, “The Power of Off,” Brody writes. In it Colier says, “we are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us.” She adds that too many people have become “disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”

“Most people now check their smartphones 150 times per day, or every six minutes,” Brody quotes Colier. “And young adults are now sending an average of 110 texts per day.”

There are consequences to this inseparability of digital device and the human mind. “Without open spaces and downtime, the nervous system never shuts down — it’s in constant fight-or-flight mode,” Colier told Brody. “We’re wired and tired all the time.”

It is also rewiring our brains so they are having a harder time focusing on reading and listening for even relatively short spans of time. English teachers are finding that it is difficult to teach the same literature classics that have been the staples of classes for a hundred years. Young people can’t comprehend them, not because of the subject matter, but because their minds don’t have the patience for the deep reading required.

In a story for The Washington Post Michael S. Rosenwald writes about a young woman who is a graduate student in creative writing who discovered she had developed a roadblock to in-depth reading. “Like a lot of Web surfers, (Claire Handscombe) clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to,” he writes.
“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” Handscombe told him. That inability to focus, she found to her surprise and dismay, had migrated to her reading of books. “It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say. When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

Our constant searching, reading and scanning of our digital devices is improving our ability to pore through the shallows of information rapidly, but we can’t get into the depths where greater meaning, understanding and connection lie. Concern is growing among child psychologists that children are being ingrained with shallow reading habits.

It isn’t just our reading ability that is being impaired.

“The near-universal access to digital technology, starting at ever younger ages, is transforming modern society in ways that can have negative effects on physical and mental health, neurological development and personal relationships, not to mention safety on our roads and sidewalks,” Brody writes.

Traffic accidents, both for vehicles and pedestrians, have spiked in the last year because drivers and walkers are distracted by their phones. Couples ignore each other as they both sit at a dinner table glued to their phones. Parents provide their children with digital games to occupy them so they then have more time to spend on their phone or tablet – ignoring interacting with their child. Young people spend less time outside getting physical exercise.

“It’s connections to other human beings — real-life connections, not digital ones — that nourish us and make us feel like we count,” Colier told Brody. “Our presence, our full attention is the most important thing we can give each other. Digital communications don’t result in deeper connections, in feeling loved and supported.”

Some observers of our digital addictions say it is time we found a way to take “time outs” where we, and our children, set our devices aside and engage in face-to-face conversations. We need to take more time for longer reading – to exercise that ability.

Collier gave Brody three steps, a beginning, for breaking digital addiction:

  1. Start by recognizing how much digital use is really needed, say, for work or navigation or letting family members know you’re O.K., and what is merely a habit of responding, posting and self-distraction.
  2. Make little changes. Refrain from using your device while eating or spending time with friends, and add one thing a day that’s done without the phone.
  3. Become very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you, and devote more time and attention to it.

We would add a fourth: Give your mind, and your child’s mind, time to wander – to be creative.

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