May 29, 2018
It was Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts.
I was meeting with a film maker about a possible collaboration on a documentary. We were interested in the impact of digital media on youth.
We were considering if our preoccupation with smart phones somehow alienates us from nature, and whether this was particularly characteristic of the younger generation.
I was in the midst of ranting about how much I hated texting. How that horrid ring tone elevated my blood pressure. I told him this is why I keep the phone on my desk, and not attached to my side.
And on cue, I got a text. For some reason, I decided to take it.
It was my daughter. I knew she was planning to be at the finish line for the Marathon. “Dad, there was a bomb. I’m in the Oyster House. The cops are here and said stay put. But I want to leave,” she texted. My immediate text response: “Don’t go anywhere. Stay put and have a drink. Promise?”
Turning to my friend, I took back everything I said about digital media. Had I not heard from her, had I not known she was safe and demanded that she stay in a safe place, I would have been a wreck.
In this case, the immediacy of our contact was invaluable.
But this was a rare occurrence. Much of the time the immediacy of digital media may cause more harm than good.
Take an act of terrorism, like in recent school shootings. I’m sure many parents, like me, were incredibly grateful to hear that their kid survived. But what about the cell phone photos and videos that were shot in the moment and sent out to the world? It was like watching the Gulf War on TV, which many of us did. Yet then, at least, we had commentary. We planned it in our daily life schedules. Now we have an ongoing, endless stream of videos, laced with screaming and crying. Sheer panic. And we all get to watch it over and over.
Is this useful? Does it help us in times of terror or mass confusion? How do we know what’s going on as we view image after image on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, or some other app? How do we know when it’s over? Is this the way we get news in our digital age?
We used to rely on vetted, trustworthy news sources for coverage of current events. Now we have access to whomever wishes to send posts. One recent study on the use of social media during a campus lockdown found that there were often conflicting reports and the recipients of those posts had significantly high stress levels.
Beyond immense tragedies, our kids live in a world of perpetual texts and images. Sometimes, the drama is pervasive. And in the hands of our teens and young adults, drawn to exaggeration, the drama tends to be high.
At last year’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) national conference, I asked the audience of over 500 high school kids:
“How many of you feel compelled to use your phones for texts and apps?”
All hands went up.
“How many of you feel that this is stressful and troubled by rumors?”
Again, all hands went up.
“How many of you can put your phone aside?”
No response. The room was silent.
So, there you have it. You can’t live with it and you can’t live without it.
Just as we are becoming more concerned about real vs. fake news on Facebook, we should also be concerned about how our phones barrage our kids with highly emotional material 24/7. Sometimes it’s local or national news. Sometimes it’s social drama in their circle of friends.
It is important to be informed and talk about world events, and even personal dramas – but how much is too much? How much is healthy for our kids?
Most importantly, what is the impact of the immediacy of news, and watching events in real time, and how does this affect their daily lives?
Tips for Parents, Adolescents and Young Adults
We are living in stressful times, from terror acts to natural disasters. It seems the last thing we need is to compound basic awareness of daily events with unnecessary digital drama.