I have a completely respectful observation about human nature; we are driven by ego! Just making that clear because I have one too and today, I’m going to start this blog by confirming how great it is to “Be Right”! The big drawback is I’m not pleased I’m “Right” because what I have been saying for a very long time has indeed come to pass. Several British studies started reporting this as early as 2011 and it is shocking that six years has gone by without acknowledging why this is a genuine problem. SIX YEARS OF DENIAL THAT MOBILE DEVICES ARE AS ADDICTIVE AS HEROIN!
Please allow me to explain why this matters to me and why it should matter to you! This was a busy weekend for me. I had a couple of speaking engagements in Alberta, both for youth and both away from Calgary. But it was another dynamic that prompted me to write this blog. My wife and business partner, Darlene, was away all weekend participating in a three day workshop for folks invested in the speaking industry (speakers, administration managers and agents) in Minneapolis. It must have worked because Darlene couldn’t stop talking about what she was learning about the vital marketing element of social media for people like me! I have to very honest here; I have been an unwilling participant in social media! Even writing this blog has at times been a big struggle for me. I’m not sure why. My guess is related to another topic I wrote about several years ago. I dubbed it “The Bubble People” in reference to how disconnected so many people are getting to the point of actual unaware rudeness. I assume they are “unaware” because I can’t imagine people would do this on purpose. Dead stop at the top or bottom of an escalator. Trying to enter an elevator before it’s empty. Not holding a door they have just gone through for someone like me right behind them! You get the idea. I observed it was happening before smart phones so the sheer escalation of these devices has exponentially added to this issue. It’s funny. A colleague of mine, (who had never heard or read about my bubble people issue) and I were meeting just last week and without any prompting and while discussing a seperate issue related to “mindfulness”, he described these folks as “living in silos”, making a reference to how technology has made it possible for people to “Never Leave The House!” Think about it! You can do everything online! Banking, paying bills, shopping for and getting home delivery for everything including groceries and meals. FaceTime or Skype so you don’t have to actually “meet” people in person; and so it goes. At the surface, sounds pretty good huh? Except, it’s not!
Human beings are not meant to live in isolation. Think about it. By the way, as per usual in my blogs, I am making “generalizations” recognizing not every single person behaves the way I observe, but in this case, the “addiction” element of this CBC segment touched a nerve with me and that is so common is unsettling. That is, in fact what pulled the elements together for writing this piece. While considering what Darlene’s new marketing plans for our speaking business was going to look like, I had to face the reality I might need to do even more online, which in my head spoke to “contributing” to the problem! As much as that may rub me the wrong way, Darlene is no dummy. So I will change my dislike into acceptance because even though I love to be “right”, growth in human beings usually begins with considering they might be wrong! Or at the very least, be willing to swallow their ego for the sake of self improvement. In this particular case, it’s a business decision but speaking is our business and my talks are based on my life so in a roundabout fashion, it’s absolutely “personal”.
If you know me at all, you would know that ego or not, I began speaking in 1981 to educate and enlighten people about disabilities using mine as the example. Of course the positive attention is nice. Much nicer then the usually “not positive” attention that was my life everyday for years! But every chance I get, I love to share one of my greatest professional enlightenments…”It’s Not About Me!” What that means, besides the obvious, is as a speaker onstage or in print, my audience is what it’s all about. Each and every person out there. Picture what might happen if each one of us made a decision to “be better” at what matters to us but then take it to the next level to improve society because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who is somewhat dismayed at the current state of our humanity. And make no mistake, this subject is absolutely about a human flaw…Addiction! But not to drugs, gambling or alcohol…devices!
I absolutely understand how that sounds. But I’m not “making this up!” Like all of you, I see the anecdotal evidence. But I don’t think there would be a “distracted driver” law if this wasn’t a legitimate issue. We all see it all the time, don’t we? People texting in their cars is one thing but it’s how I’ve observed people in all my travelling that disturbs me the most. I’m not making this up; there is a new prognosis by chiropractors about the damage we are doing to our necks and upper backs because of so much time spent “looking down” at a device. Pretty sure we are usually supposed to keep our heads up! But it seems there is something in there that is so vital to world peace that we must “check our device” according to some studies…500 Times A Day! Really? The number of people being diagnosed with carpal tunnel issues in their wrists has also shot up because of the sheer volume of time people are spending tapping with their thumbs!
And what exactly is so urgent? Photos on SnapChat, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. may be interesting, but “urgent”? Sorry but to me this is all looping back to our egos and massaging them by how many “Friends” we have on Facebook, how “busy” we are with emails and texts, and photos, and videos, and, and, and! But as a young, tech savvy friend of mine reminds me; “Alvin, it’s really none of your business”! That may be accurate on a certain level but as I stated earlier, my “business” is people and not because I “dislike them” so I can put them down. That would be “Lowering The Bar”. I’m all about “Raising The Bar”.
So as I mentioned at the beginning, I had a busy weekend with two speaking engagements out of town. The one in Edmonton this past Sunday would be where all the “tumblers” came together to unlock a treasure of an idea for me. If you don’t know, we live in beautiful Calgary, Alberta in Canada and Edmonton is a three hour drive so I’d drove, something I still enjoy even after driving over one million kilometres in my career (not exaggerating). I love the solitude and listening to music or talk-radio and in Canada, I love CBC Radio, our version of PBS. I was listening to a program called “The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright and this episode (November 16, 2017) was entitled “What are cell phones doing to our youth”. It obviously caught my attention considering my concerns about bubble people and silos, but especially because of my dedication to youth in my work and life. Please go check it out but I’m not giving you the link because I want you to stay here for now please. The interview was with two recognized experts in their field. Clive Thompson who is author of “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing our Minds for the Better” and Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy & Completely Unprepared For Adulthood!”
You might imagine it would have been a testy discussion with Thompson defending Devices and Twenge criticizing them. There was a bit of that but Twenge in particular made a profound case for my assertion of Addiction. She cited a 2015 report by the American thinktank, The Pugh Research Center, confirming 75% of American teens own a device, that their screen time outside of school time is 6 to 8 hours a day and the average age for them to obtain a device is ten years old! There is actually a stroller on the market that has a built in holder for an iPad or the like…for fricking toddlers! Unbelievable. Think of how parents are contributing to the addiction. Seriously. This is scary. Imagine if it was okay to give our “children” a rock or crack cocaine! Am I going over the top here?
The research cited also tracked statistics showing a huge spike in increased anxiety, depression and even suicide among teens. It seems the worst offender is kids taking their phones to bed with them to not only use them as alarm clocks but they are checking them an average of seven times a night which has caused serious sleep deprivation. Developing adolescents require a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night to maintain a healthy balance in their brains and bodies. The new average is five. Schools have been reporting huge spikes in discipline issues, kids falling asleep in class and general lack of interest in school itself, the “learning” part, not the social part. I walk through hallways in schools across North America and kids aren’t sitting in groups talking, laughing, engaging with each other. They are all on their devices. I’ve had teachers and administrators tell me they have confiscated cell or smart phones and students even go into “withdrawal” symptoms. These are facts, not fiction contrived to support my view.
So I hear this 30 minute segment, I’m contemplating Darlene’s plan for more social media and I’m going to speak to a youth group of high school students. Wow! Then it happened. The group of 75 was comprised of ninth to twelfth grade age and members of a synagogue youth organization. They meet a couple of times a year for provincial conferences and this is voluntary. What struck me when I walked in the gymnasium where they were all getting set for a group exercise prior to my talk, I didn’t see any Devices. I asked the organizer why, imagining they have a “rule” for use. I was surprised to hear they don’t ask the kids to surrender their phones as some of their helicopter parents can’t handle not being able to reach their “babies”! The young people in this group are “taught” that during the weekend, they are expected to be “Present” and not in the attendance kind of way, but in a “mindfulness” kind of way. I know; mindfulness has a “new age buzz” to it, but why is that so suspicious?
I am aware this is unusually long post. This subject could be a book on its own but I am not the one to write it because I don’t want to. Why I’m giving it so many words here is I have a very powerful belief that devices have opened a door to a discussion about “changing a behaviour”. As my techy friend said about minding my own business, sure. But this is not about all of us “going downtown to look for drug addicts living on the street and “change their behaviour”! That “is” their business. This is about an addiction that has a direct impact on society! Let’s be clear, I’m not “anti-technology”. I’m writing this with my toes on an iPad and my mobile smartphone is a Samsung Android. But check out what I have observed.
Because I have no arms, I can’t carry my smartphone. I don’t have it on my pocket because I don’t use my pockets. I can’t text and drive because I’ve got one foot on the steering wheel and the other on the gas or brake. By the way, I believe texting and driving is one of the most narcissistic, “silo effect” behaviours out there so even if I had hands, I am completely against it! I can’t walk around holding my phone with my neck bent and head down so I actually am aware of what’s going on around me. I don’t have thumbs so can’t get carpal tunnel syndrome. I do use my devices but actually have to “plan” a convenient time and place. And this is a big one; I “work” at being “conscious” of those around me…ALWAYS! I have been since 1963! Seiously! My Mom taught me that. She taught me that a simple way to respond to people and their rude stares and expressions seeing a little boy without arms was to look them in the eyes and smile.
I find it fascinating that the author, Jean Twenge I referred to earlier mentioned that College professors are observing that young people in their classrooms have a severely shortened attention span, can’t and often, won’t, read long textbook passages because they actually get jumpy! Most disturbing; they don’t look you in the eye! Wow! Once more, I’m “generalizing”, but Twenge says the numbers from Pugh Research speak for itself. It was creepy! I listened to the radio bit and two hours later I’m in front of the “proof” that this behaviour can be modified. The youth in my program were, and using the words of one of the organizers, “Riveted. You had them in the palm of your…well you know what I mean!” Not to boast, but honestly, that happens every time I’m on stage. Is that because I’m “special”? Well, I “am” special, but not in a “special needs” kind of way. I am convinced and have been for 40 years that human beings “love” a good story told by a gifted storyteller. It was true the first time I spoke as Easter Seals “Timmy” in 1976 and it was true a couple of days ago. So, does that mean you all need to become (if you aren’t already) storytellers? Of course not, although “everyone” has a story! And I’m not asking you to confiscate your kid’s phone or throw yours away. I’m talking about something I learned at three years of age; “Connect With People”, not “Disconnect”, as is happening all around the world! Why?
Well, first, it’s called “respect” for those around you. Second, this whole story is about the effect a “screen” is having on our brain and therefore, mental health, another subject we need to be more open to discussing. Third, there is bullet proof evidence that striving for “balance” in our lives is also not a “New Agie” concept. Fourth, and this is particularly important for our youth: is time spent on devices contributing to our growth or stealing hours of time that could be better spent studying, learning an instrument, playing a sport, volunteering for a charity, or just plain “chilling”! Fifth, I believe all the time spent looking at all the online dread of our world is increasing, not decreasing our anxiety leading to insecurity, paranoia, anger and hostility. That can’t be good for us.
Look, this post wasn’t inspired by an urge to “slag” technology. It also wasn’t written for my ego. I am indebted to every person I ever met who made me a better person and/or helped me overcome my life obstacles. They weren’t always polite and sometimes I wondered how they could have such high expectations of a guy without arms! But they challenged me to go “Beyond Limits”. To raise my own bar to achieve the impossible. Technology may be “smarter” than ever but human beings invented technology. So instead of letting it control us, why not control it and free your mind to be the best you can be!