This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 31 2017.
“Flaming and Flouncing” could have been the title of a Chuck Berry song. I got the terms from a blogging platform now defunct called Open Salon. A trivial dispute could easily escalate into a “flame war” with injured parties threatening to leave the site – “flouncing” – to derisive cries of “don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out!”
Jean M. Twenge has written a book called, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Her research leads her to the conclusion that young people are being severely damaged by their addiction to smartphones. She has been researching generational differences for 25 years but around 2012, she noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviour and emotional states. She claimed she had never seen anything like it in any of her research material, some of it dating back to the 1930s. A generation has grown up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet.
Mental Health Crisis
Twenge writes: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones… the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.” The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. Since 2007, the homicide rate among teens has declined, but the suicide rate has increased.
Twenge was shocked to find that most of her undergraduate students at San Diego State University slept with their phones. “Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone.” Twenge comments: “Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep.”
I am an elderly person and a late-adopter when it comes to technology. I am still using the amplifier I bought in 1983 and was quite comfortable with a black bakelite phone made in the 1960s. It took me a long time to get even a stupid cell phone (I mainly use it to tell the time and it often lies to me about that). Even without reading Twenge’s findings I find something creepy about the attachment of young people to their phones. I was given a smartphone but I have not got around to using it yet. I also find something very creepy about my own addiction to Facebook and some people clearly spend a lot more time checking and sending messages than I do.
I first started blogging about ten years ago on Open Salon which was launched as a platform for writers and other creative artists. It did not quite turn out like that. Although many smart and talented people participated (and I am still on good terms with many of them, even today) OS was too often a battlefield. Too much time was taken up with blather about celebrities. Posts which gained the most attention were, strangely enough, those which came to be known as ‘meta posts’ – lengthy philosophical discussions about the ins and outs of the way the site worked. Other popular posts were those that gave rise to ‘flame wars’. These could go on for weeks and develop really long threads in which the original point became quite forgotten.
This tends not to happen so much on FB. Issues are usually more ephemeral because there are so many people involved and the throughput is so much greater that it was on OS. After a couple of days at the most, people tend to move on.
I had some meta thoughts recently in relation to Bruce Forsyth. It happened like this. X is one of my favourite virtual ‘friends’. He is erudite and well-read and pleasant company. He made some comments about Bruce Forsyth which I thought were inappropriate as the man had just died. We exchanged views and I could see that no minds were going to be changed and went to bed.
The next morning, I wanted to check if I needed to qualify my comments. I could not find my comments. Indeed, the entire thread seemed to have been deleted. I thought that was a good thing and moved on to other matters. Imagine my surprise when X brought up the matter again saying that someone was not happy about his comments on Forsyth. He did not name me but many people immediately pitched in to sympathise with him for the suffering caused by this anonymous persecutor. As many of the people condemning the anonymous person were my ‘friends’ I decided to out myself and explain my position. I patiently tried to put my case – I was not attacking X or denying his right to an opinion, merely disagreeing with him. X eventually said I should drop the matter and I agreed to do so. The whole atmosphere was that I was being obsessive arguing my case when it was X who had resurrected it. I felt that I had been manoeuvred into a position where I was seen as an obsessive bully who could not move on. I had thought that I was merely making a case for compassion.
A distinguished poet was sharing a great deal of his new work, parodies of dead poets, with his friends on Facebook. Most people loved the work and said so. The poet was upset and lost sleep because someone chipped in to say that he should be including more women. I do not blame him for being upset – he is a sensitive and kind man who was merely trying to entertain himself and others without meaning any harm to anyone. I have been similarly upset on Facebook when I have found myself criticised in what I thought an unfair manner. I made the mistake of putting in a plea for sympathy for the offending commenter. She was wrong and I supported the poet but I was rather disturbed at way bystanders piled in to berate her. I ventured the thought that, judging from her posts, she suffered from a physical ailment which might affect her mental outlook, i.e. make her less than fully happy with the world. I was immediately chastised for offering “armchair diagnoses” and “fostering prejudice” against people with mental illness.
Time Runs Out
I flounced from OS long before it expired, partly because of the flame wars and celebrity chatter but mainly because it was taking up far too much of my limited time. I think I will be giving Facebook a rest for a while – not just because of the faults of other people who participate. I include myself in the category of those who have to have an opinion about everything, including the moral fibre of celebrities, those who have to make a smart remark about everything, those who like to pile in for a fight at every opportunity, those who make unwarranted assumptions about complete strangers, those who looking for ways to find offence, those pedants who love to point out the mistakes of others, those who love to flaunt their knowledge and culture. I am not being superior. I have been guilty of all those unpleasant behaviours plus many more that I have forgotten. Most of all, I have been guilty of wasting my precious time. I would advise other people to take a break too.