Look around and you're sure to see people using their smartphones in places and situations that are tailor-made for human interaction — in restaurants, at the dinner table, during church, funerals, in classrooms, board meetings — pretty much anywhere you can get a signal. Sometimes I do the same thing, constantly checking my phone for messages and email even though I’m not expecting anything in particular. When my phone is in my pocket or on my desk while I’m writing, I reach for it subconsciously, pick it up, and take a minute or so to check emails, text or whatever else catches my interest. I’m well aware that I’m being distracted from other things, but I continue to do it.
In Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, in which he writes about the effect of the Internet on the brain, he shares with his readers that even he, a writer who's studied the effects of a distracted society, admits that he has difficulty writing those very words because he gets distracted by the constant lure of email, blog post, Facebook updates and videos that are only a click away.
We often speak about how our digital society is affecting the children of America, but why focus on just the children, what about the rest of us? It’s not like we're standing by idly as the digital parade goes by.
When I attend professional development with other teachers, some of them on their computers checking email or grading papers during the lecture, they seem distracted. Not all of us are 100 percent engaged in the information being presented. If educators, who deal with distracted students on a daily basis, and other adults have a difficult time staying focused, how do we expect younger generations to have more self-discipline than we do?
As an educator, I enter the classroom knowing that it's difficult to stay focused on one thing for a while. I have a little more patience with my students than others — like I said, I can see and feel lure of the digital world, too. Instead of threatening to confiscate their devices or discouraging use in the classroom, I incorporate their need for digital access by leading them through a series of informative websites that strengthens the lesson I'm teaching. I give them a digital fix in a positive way, even though I know as soon as they leave my room they're stepping back into a world of frivolous information.
I’m a member of a social group of other men (mainly educators of some sort) that meets once a month to discuss issues that affect our society. We're developing connections the old fashioned way, face- to-face. Forming bonds and engaging in non-confrontational conversation — even when views differ — beats video teleconferences and email correspondence every time . It's very refreshing. I don't think our group would be able to have such meaningful interactions were we to meet online; typing words in a little comment box doesn't reveal the tone of the speaker.
I don’t think it’s unrealistic — or too difficult — to balance the worlds of digital and analog, Facebook with real face time. And it's important to find that balance.
James McWilliams, in an article titled “Saving the Self in the Age of Selfie” in The American Scholar magazine, states that there are four habits that are essential to preserve our human identity: spending time alone, engaging in meaningful conversations, forming friendships, and pursuing an activity within a community. To me, this doesn't mean throwing your phone away or unplugging your computer, it’s more about the balance. Technology is here to stay, we're still learning how to live with it and keep a standard of humanity intact.
Without balancing our use of digital technology, we can be totally absorbed by it.
Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at email@example.com, and his photography at thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com.