I was recently staying with friends while travelling to the UK. We both have pre-teenagers who are asking if they can have a mobile phone, even a smart phone. “All my friends have got one, I feel left out!” you know how it goes.
We parents decided to have ourselves a mini-conference over several cups of tea. It was very rewarding, so I thought I would try to share our conclusions in this short article. I have added some of my own ayurvedic insights.
The question we were trying to address was: “What are the main risks or negative effects of smartphone use, social media, and internet habits among young people these days? Here is a summary of our discussion’s main conclusions.
Inner-Peace & Existential Disconnect
Smartphone culture is inviting us into the world of constant micro-distractions. We are engaging in stimulation-rich multimedia, in byte-sized doses. If we enable all the ‘push’ and ‘alert’ features, we become accustomed to the constant state of anticipation and excitement, ever-ready for the next nugget of news/chat/likes. Our attention is being diced up into smaller and smaller segments. We are drawn away from our present environment, the present moment, into a virtual world of increasingly trivial, superficial content.
My biggest concern is that this technology delivers a very facile and addictive replacement to the highly underrated realm of being ‘present’, a space where introspection, contemplation, idling and simple plain old ‘being’ can thrive. Being present cultivates awareness, which according to ayurveda, is the most important pre-requisite for spiritual, mental and physical health.
Smartphone use, if allowed to develop to its full potential, is a sure-fast way to reduce our chances of experiencing prolonged moments of uninterrupted, focussed awareness of the fullness of being that is inherent when we are in a low-stimulation environment. Self-awareness and self-reflection are near impossible when we are engaged in the clicks, flicks and swipes of the smartphone interface.
Modern society is already abundant with myriad distractions for our sense-gratification/activity hungry minds: TV, radio, portable music players. We are doing so many things, so much more quickly, especially via the computer interfaces that are filling our homes and workplaces.
With the addition of smartphones and the like, we run the risk of living more and more in our heads, and in an increasingly superficial, schizoid kind of way. We are loosing the habit of being content with little, content with stillness of body, senses and mind. We are becoming increasingly discontent with the empty-fullness of the present moment and the relatively slow-and-steady experience of our natural environment: our body sensations, our breath; the wind, sun and rain; running water; clouds in the sky. I predict that alone, this aspect of modern life will render us en-mass to a state of escalating existential disconnection, individually and collectively. The consequences for the individual and society will be devastating; not like a potent poison but like slow rot.
Creativity is constant. So long as we are active in some capacity, mentally or physically, we are creating. We are all innately creative, compelled by instinct to respond in action to the multiple forms of stimulus we receive via our senses. We cannot avoid being creative. Some people argue that modern technology, including IT, is opening doors in this respect. I agree. However, as the smartphone culture expands its reach into our behavioural habits, it may be at risk of diluting the potency of our creative mind’s ability for truly inspired, high quality creation, the kind that is born from sustained, focussed mental effort.
The best creative enterprises, in my opinion, come when our method is roughly aligned with the innate creative cycle of nature at large. According to ayurveda, all creations unfold in a logic order comprising five distinct yet interrelated phases reflecting the five fundamental states of matter in the universe:
1. Akasha / Space / Conception: Before an idea is born, before a thought comes, before a direction is taken, a space must be created. The slate is wiped clean, we meditate on the present moment, we empty our minds. Think conception.
2. Vayu / Movement / Experimentation: Within this space, from seemingly nowhere, a movement appears, a ripple on the calm surface of the lake. Thanks to the infinitely all-accepting, expansive nature of Akasha, Vayu can begin to move freely, exploring all manner of possibilities. Think experimentation.
3. Agni / Transformation / Implementation: From the pregnant all-pervading fullness of Akasha, then the free-style movements of Vayu, ideas begin to flow, to collide, to merge. Light and heat is produced which enables ideas to be understood, intelligence emerges, and a clear project with direction, purpose and intelligent control is established. Think implementation.
4. Jala / Cohesion / Fruition: With the project now clearly illuminated and a way presented to construct something, work begins. Jala affords fluidity and cohesion to the creative process, allowing the building blocks to be placed one on top of the other until the project begins to bear fruit.
5. Prithivi / Solidity / Termination: All creative endeavours must come to an end. Prithivi represents the idea of a fixed goal with concrete structure and form. As the project progresses, the solidity of Prithivi enables Jala to densify and come to a stable coherent end point. Job well done!
My concern with smartphone culture and its byproducts is that it is creating a distracted creatively compromised mind-ability for its users. Only the strong willed and self-conscious among us are managing to reap the rewards whilst keeping the beast under control.
Smartphones with smart apps may provide us with access to wonderful means of artistic expression, but how can we be expected to cultivate a sufficiently large creativity-space for phase one of the process if we are constantly being interrupted by tweets, likes, alerts and so on? Add to this our increasing impulsion to respond instantly to the most trivial or non-urgent micro-communications of our 100’s of so called ‘friends’.
Unless we turn of the phone, and unplug from the net, how are we going to create a vast enough space within which to experiment and create genuine works of greatness, instead of fast-cooked-up rehashes of other peoples’ ideas? Surely there is a time and place for intense, super-efficient collaboration. But I feel it must be balanced with thoughtful, contemplative and spacious exploration and maturity.
The smartphone culture is making us less reliant on basic skills including imagination and problem solving. We are becoming increasingly dependent on the apps and their instant answers. From basic navigation skills, knowledge about weights and measure, and so on: how much of our common sense skills can we afford to loose to our ‘second brains’?
With so many answers at the ready, are we not at risk of never really forming our own conclusions about things? Are we even questioning the truth of what we are receiving via all these mini context-de-robed news articles?
Could this progression from self-reliance to device-dependancy actually feed a longterm scenario where we are actually disempowering rather than empowering ourselves with this technology?
As a parent, I have wrestled to defend my home-space from the shiny eye-gloating allure of all these gadgets as they have inevitably found there way into our lives. TV and internet use are rationed, in a relaxed and informative way. My children are left to their own devices to explore need for change and stimulation. We provide them with limited resources, encourage them to roam outside, and to create things from nothing. They have learned to become ingenious, taking scraps of paper, cardboard, old clothes, and making fun out of them. How will these ‘nature’ children compare to those who have always had a nintendo-console-come-smartphone culture?
My prediction is that the younger we become habitual users of smartphone technology, the weaker we will become in terms of our mental strength, especially our sense of inner intellect, the choice-maker (called ‘Buddhi’ in ayurveda and yogic science). Without Buddhi we become: automatic, conditioned, mass-media-led, pawns in the machine. Ring any bells?
It’s the weekend, I’m out with my family for a walk. We end up in a local tea shop. Opposite me, a family of four: the kids are both plugged into their smartphones or gameboys, heads down. Dad is texting someone at work, and mum is gazing across into space. No one is talking. No one is connecting. Is this a problem?
My experience in the home, with netbooks computers and two daughters discovering free online bird games, YouTube, etc., is that their mood might deteriorate, especially if they are interrupted from their immersed state. Frustration, possessiveness, irritability, mental fatigue, over-sensitivity; these are a few of the emotions I have witnessed.
Perhaps worse is the introversion and isolation that can ensue when someone becomes engrossed in their net-world, a world that is so utterly separate from the real one around them. There are obviously many dimensions to this topic.
Dependency & Addiction
We felt that there is a tendency to become addicted to the emotional reward of self-importance gained from people ‘liking’ us, contacting us etc. Does one become partially dependent on this vapid form of self-importance and the pleasure response it creates? If the smartphone is allowed to perform to its maximum potential, woe can be in an almost perpetual high, primed, distracted, anticipating our next nudge or poke. As the habit sets in, we now have a new lifestyle factor that is causing us to feel wired, mentally restless and fatigued.
And what happens when the network is unavailable, and you can’t consult your facebook page? The result is instantaneous boredom, a sign that we are mental overstimulated, exhausted even, and totally unused to simple time spent outside the virtual so-called-connected world.
It is already happening, talk of facebook rehab clinics or retreats are in the popular press.
Mental & Emotional Stability
Ayurveda predicts that overuse of smartphones or similar small portable computers would lead to an aggravation of vata dosha, particularly prana vayu, the aspect of vata that governs the senses and the mind.
Here is a list of different symptoms prana vayu aggravation:
- Brash behaviour
- Distracted mind
- Emotionally disturbed
- Emotionally withdrawn
- Feeling of isolation
- Feeling of lonesomeness even when in a crowd
- Feelings of emptiness
- Hyperactive body mind and senses
- Hypersensitive emotionally
- Irrational behaviour
- Loss of confidence
- Loss of enthusiasm
- Mental agitation
- Poor concentration (difficulty to focus mind)
- Poor memory
- Racing mind
- Scattered mind
- Sense of helplessness
- Sense of missing love
- Thoughtless behaviour
Prana vayu controls all the faculties of vata. Once deranged, it can cause other imbalances of vata. For readers who are no familiar with ayurvedic thought, vata when aggravated causes disorders that represent increased qualities of dryness, lightness and coldness.
Another side effect of using smartphones etc. for increasing amounts of time is that we are experiencing increasing amounts of electromagnetic radiation. Should we be concerned about children using these devices? More on this in another blog article.
All of the above applies equally well to adults as it does to kids. But kids are more vulnerable, and habits made in our youth often form the basis for all that we build upon thereafter.
Well, I am exhausted just thinking about it. No doubt this article could be elaborated. I would love you comments and contributions. Please note that I have deliberately not listed the potential pros of our kids having their own smartphone. Since this ‘think tank’ had the unanimous sentiment that these devices are bad news, we just sought to explore our hunches in more detail.