We are currently experiencing a full-on crisis in consciousness. Modern society is being plagued by screen addicted over stimulation via computers, smartphones and the internet. We are constantly being drugged into a catatonic trance through the hypnotic glow of our screens. And BTW I think we can safely say that we’ve officially blown the roof off of what it means to become “comfortably numb”.
When was the last time you sat around at night for an extended period of time without looking at a screen? Seriously, think about it. When you weren’t working, you weren’t eating, or taking care of your kids, when you had “free time”, likely between the hours of 8-11 PM... How much of that time did you spend NOT in front of a screen?
I have a deep scary sense that we, as modern humans, are losing our ability to connect with the magic and mystery of existence—something already on the endangered species list when I was a kid. With the ability to plug into a nearly infinite menu entertainment options with just “one click”, there are now barely any natural moments of quiet, stillness or boredom. In this new digital age we don’t even have the opportunity to come anywhere near the vicinity of getting “bored”.
Without natural boredom—the old school boredom of sitting in your room without a TV or computer—we as humans bypass the natural outcomes of creativity, curiosity and exploration of life, existence and the mystery of this universe born of extended periods of quiet, non-stimulation and natural boredom.
Think back to when you were a kid—if you were a kid when the only computer you saw was a large clunky Commodore or early Mac with floppy discs that could hold your adolescent attention for just about ten minutes—what did you do when you got bored? Do you remember the intelligence of your system coming up with creative ways to stimulate your mind? Do you remember pushing through the boredom to the edge of curiosity about life, about how things work, about where we are and why we are here?
What are our children doing nowadays with such easy access to smartphones, computers and tablets? What are the impacts on their brain development?
How about when you got older before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tinder hit the scene, when first exploring life on your own in college or university? How has the web and social media impacted our social dynamics? How we make friends, how we develop a healthy self-concept through social interactions? How have these technological “advances” transformed dating, getting to know someone, and exploring the sacred realm of intimate relationship?
I’m afraid that natural mechanism in the mind and being which pushed us through the surface levels of boredom to the wide expanse of creativity on the other side is now on the edge of total extinction. People don’t stand much of a chance nowadays with the instant stimulation and physiological dopamine responses experienced from the engaging with a screen.
And not only that, these technologies are intentionally being engineered to be addictive as an article written for Vice News titled, “The Secret Ways Social Media is Built for Addiction”, explains:
“‘The attention economy" is a relatively new term. It describes the supply and demand of a person's attention, which is the commodity traded on the internet. The business model is simple: the more attention a platform can pull, the more effective its advertising space becomes, allowing it to charge advertisers more… as Facebook observed, social feedback induces a burst of happiness so brief it's addictive, causing us to return more and scroll further… all of them use something called intermittent variable rewards… you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you've won. Or you swipe right on Tinder to see if you've won.”
Or the opening sentence in an article from the Slate:
“Are Facebook and other social media companies intentionally exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities to keep them addicted? You bet, says Sean Parker, who made a fortune as an early Facebook investor and its first president.”
Or an excerpt from this article in The Guardian:
“A former Facebook executive has said he feels “tremendous guilt” over his work on “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”... Chamath Palihapitiya, who was vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011, said: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
There are countless articles out there about internet and social media addiction, just Google it : )
I’ll share two personal examples that have made this realization all the more real and scary for me. In my past I have personally experienced incredible moments of awe, wonder and jaw-dropping amazement upon the reflection of the simple fact that I am alive. I spent a large portion of my late teens and early twenties exploring meditation and different spiritual philosophies of existence, reality and purpose—the how's and why’s of creation.
During those times I found powerful amazement in the simple manifestations of life, the sky, my hands and feet, gravity, a hug, animals, tears, food and water, etc. I realized then the phenomenal gift of being born a healthy human and not a dog, cow, slug, rock or spider. The miracle of my life, of my breath and consciousness, and my ability to be aware of this miracle was at times so overwhelming to my system that it brought me to tears and at times terror.
Recently I have found myself spending my nights, after our daughter is asleep, “in the arms of morpheus” in front of a computer numbing myself deeper into a screen addicted coma. Where did the moments of awe and wonder for simple existence go? Where did the gratitude from realizing I’m a healthy awake and aware human go? Where did that natural curiosity go, which asks the fundamental questions: Where are we? What am I? And why am I and we here? Where did my passion for change, for growing, for learning, for serving a greater cause go? How did the previously booming voice of my soul and spirit become a faint whisper?
If you find yourself asking the same questions I urge you to take a deep look at how you are using your “free time” these days.
The second example I’ll share that is freaking me out has to do with my daughter. Nearly a year and a half now and her powerful fascination and hunger for screens is already quite apparent. We have a pretty strict protocol for her around screens, i.e. she doesn’t get “screen time”. But we use Facetime or Skype to keep in touch with grandparents or friends who don’t live nearby. And she’ll occasionally catch a glimpse of what we’re watching. But it’s dramatically clear to see how enamoured she is with the tiny amount of exposure she does get.
My wife and I also discuss the potential impacts of our own unhealthy screen usage on her. How does seeing us on our phones or computers affect the way she is experiencing reality and her craving for screen exposure?
I fear for her future abilities to access creativity and curiosity about the fundamental workings of life with such a potent attention grabbing mechanism as a smartphone and computer—not to mention whatever our human ingenuity comes up with next.
I fear she won’t have the opportunities I had to be bored, to work those recesses of her mind in order to come out on the other side through some creative manifestation of mind. I fear her addiction to screens will be substantially worse than mine and my wife’s. I fear that we as parents won’t have the strength not to sit her in front of a screen at those hard moments when we need to get shit done or we’re just too tired and have run out of attention giving steam. I’ll say this is a big reason we are planning on sending her to a Waldorf School, even if we don’t fully agree with the entirety of its educational model.
So, where’s the hope? Well, my wife and I are starting an experiment tonight. We are going to curb our screen addictions and direct our energy and attention in ways that are more soul and spirit nourishing. We are starting a new nightly spiritual practice of watching or listening to spiritual teachings from 9-10 PM and then having 30 minutes of silent time to reflect and contemplate what we’ve heard. There will be no other screen usage allowed until the next day.
If you’re noticing similar unhealthy patterns in your life I invite you to join us in this experiment. Start by committing to a week, track how you feel before and after each night and at the end of the week. I’ll paradoxically and perhaps hypocritically be posting something on Facebook as a forum for exchanging different observations and discoveries produced by the experiment. Good luck!
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Gavriel Strauss is a Spiritual Counselor & Transformation Coach, he offers professional services in Holistic Spiritual Development and Spiritual Path Design.