July 2010: The Influence of Technology in Our Lives

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess. New York Times: Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price

It seems that almost everyday a new article or study comes out that clues us in to how pervasive the effects of technology and social media are on our lives.  Whether the effects are personal or relational, technology and social media are transforming our lives.  Some of the ways that it transforms our lives can be expected (feeling connected, up to date information, organization, etc.), but other times the effects are ones we don’t expect (anxiety, affairs, jealousy, anger, porn addiction, lack of intimacy, etc.).

In this newsletter I would just like to take a few moments and point you towards some resources that you may find helpful as you begin to think more critically on how technology and social media are influencing your life.  And I would like to suggest a few tips that you may find helpful in navigating through this issue.

Technology Transforms Us
I have written about this topic numerous times on my blog at rhettsmith.com, and hopefully you will find something helpful there for you to read.  I also recommend that you regularly read John Dyer’s blog at Don’t Eat the Fruit.  John does some of the best writing at the intersections of technology/theology and technology/relational-practical psychology. Check out one of John’s talks below on how technology is not neutral.

Technology Is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

View more webinars from John Dyer.

One of the more succinct articles on the topic of the transforming effects of technology on our lives is from New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Charles M. Blow, who has a great round-up of some of the articles and studies of interest, Friends, Neighbors and Facebook.

  • Pew Research Study-Neighborhood Communications: “Found that only 43 percent of Americans know all or most of their neighbors by name. Twenty-nine percent know only some, and 28 percent know none.”
  • Pew Research Study-Social Isolation and New Technology: “Found that “users of social networking services are 26 percent less likely to use their neighbors as a source of companionship.”
  • Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to, study finds: “college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” The reason? One factor could be social networking. As one researcher put it, “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.” I wrote about this study in early June.
  • New York Times: The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In: “‘laid out new research that revealed that “feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition are widespread’” among children of parents who obsess over cellphones, instant messaging and Twitter at the expense of familial engagement.”

Last, I want to recommend just a few books with varying themes on the influence of technology in our lives:

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

Facebook and Your Marriage by K. Jason Krafsky and Kelli Krafsky

Set Some Technological Boundaries
Most people adopt a technology into their lives without really asking, “How is this technology going to shape me? How is this technology going to change my relationships, or impact my family dynamics? So one of the first boundaries that I think is helpful for individuals and families is to begin with some questions.  For example:

Seeking Boundaries Through Questioning

  1. If we give this iPhone to our son and daughter, how may this technology impact how we communicate with them in the future?  And are we okay with how it transforms the communication process?
  2. Is the device age appropriate?   For example, does my 8 year old really need an cell phone?
  3. If I’m on the computer instead of interacting with my friends, wife, kids, etc., what kind of message is that sending to them?  Am I okay with that message, or the their perception of the message that is being sent?
  4. How will my use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) impact how I communicate with others?

There are lots and lots of questions that you can ask yourself, or those that you are in relationship with (partner, spouse, family, co-worker, etc.).  So begin there.  Be creative and explore how the adoption of a technology into your life will transform it.  Once you have asked some questions, setting some physical boundaries is helpful.  For example:

Setting Physical Boundaries

  1. Set time limits on when a technology can be used.  For example, many individuals and families that I know set time boundaries on their use of cell phones and computers, often leaving them off from the time they get home till after the kids are in bed.  Some choose to leave them off all night.  You don’t have to be legalistic about it, but play around with some ideas.  I find it helpful to leave my cell phone off when I come home from work so that I’m focused on my family, especially my daughter who goes to be within an hour or two after I get home.  I may decide to check it after she goes to sleep to make sure there is nothing urgent, but I often choose to leave it off till morning so that my wife feels that I’m fully present with her.
  2. Create a physical place where you can put aside your technological devices as a way of saying to one another, “I am present.  What matters most is what is happening in front of me, and not what is happening out there.” Some families have been creative in creating spaces such as baskets where every member in the family puts their devices from night until morning.  Check out John Dyer’s article, Why You Need a Technology Basket at Home.
  3. Set aside at least one day a week where you strive to be as technology free as possible (I know technology can mean a lot of things, but I’m primarily thinking of computing devices, cell phones, etc, etc.).  Do you have a day where you leave your phone off, or don’t check your email?  If not, think about setting aside a day to do this.  It accomplishes at least two purposes: 1) Signals to yourself, to your family, and to others that you won’t let technology dictate your life (at least one day a week); lets those people know that for at least one day a week you are setting aside time to be fully present with them.  2) Helps one lower technological anxiety (something that many people don’t realize they have until they start to unplug).

These are just a few suggestions to help you begin the process of thinking through this topic.  What suggestions do you have?

The influence of technology is a huge topic, and with each passing day more and more information and studies are coming out as we begin to see some of the effects that our new technologies are having on our lives.  So now is the time to begin asking questions and setting boundaries–not only in your own life, but helping your friends and family think through this issue.

Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.

“The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.”

That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.” New York Times: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price

Thanks for checking out the July 2010 Newsletter, and let me know if you have any topics that you would like me to address in upcoming newsletters.

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