Friday, April 29, 2011

ARE YOU ON SOMETHING? – Coming Home To the Here and Now

Ask kids where's their favorite place to play, and you may be as troubled as I am by the answer. More and more, they're saying that place is indoors. Say what? With the astounding variety of places to go, things to discover and adventures to be had in Nature, why on this precious earth would a child prefer to play inside? The kids' answer: because that's where the electrical chargers are.

  Depriving a child of a close relationship with 
  Nature is as unthinkable as depriving that child 
  of proper nutrition.

It was a conversation like this with a young boy that motivated Richard Louv to write his best-selling Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. The book makes a compelling case: that depriving a child of a close relationship with Nature is as unthinkable as depriving that child of proper nutrition.

I'm so grateful that I grew up when being outdoors was more fun than anything else, when "social media" meant playing, sharing real-life adventures and talking face to face. My "friends" were really friends, because we actually did stuff together; they were my classmates, my teammates, perhaps my co-conspirators in some kind of prank.

We knew fresh air, water, sun and soil first-hand. We were aware that we shared our world with lots of other growing, breathing organisms. Hell, we even loved being outside in the winter!

These experiences shaped my friendships, and they also made me friends with Nature. I watched her, waited for her, suffered at her whim, but more than anything, I learned from her. She taught me patience, resourcefulness and creativity. She introduced me to awe.

These days it seems everyone's on something—on line, on Twitter or Facebook,
on their iPad or iPhone. And, since these indulgences barely require one to lift a finger, this means we spend way too much time on something else: our asses.


It's not just about separation from Nature, though that's certainly a key symptom of this "on" addiction. It's also the loss of real, first-hand interaction with other human beings. Getting "together" through social media, despite the allure of its sheer ease, is like knowing someone solely on the basis of your conversation through a thick wall. Other than knowing each other is paying attention, not much gets through.

          Am I the only one who senses a 
          kind of lonely desperation here?

Now, I'm not living in a cave; I realize that much of value happens through social media. (Think the $29 million in texted donations the American Red Cross raised in short order a few years back for Haiti earthquake relief, or the occasional bloodless overthrow of a corporate or political tyrant powered by the social media.) Still, kids in general aren't involved in such causes; the vast majority of them are "on something" for far less weighty reasons.

For hundreds of millions of Facebook and Twitter users, it's not about helping; it's not about information; it's not even about anything seriously resembling communication. No, nowadays its about connection, not as in sharing something of meaning, but as in connection for connection's sake, connection worn like a badge. Hey, look, I have so many "friends" or "likers." For what? Is anything of consequence actually being done? Am I the only one who senses a kind of lonely desperation in trading the wonders of (real) Nature for this?

It's not that the technology and media are unhealthy in and of themselves; it's the degree of their use, the sheer volume of time the average devotee spends every day on utterly meaningless pursuits.

Parents know, somewhere in their gut, that too much texting, Snap-Chatting and playing Star Wars or Grand Theft Auto – version umpteen—not to mention exposure to the cesspool of reality television—is not good for their kids. But, as with junk food, there's a little conspiracy at work. This time, the connivance involves the parents, who convince themselves that Jill and Jimmy derive some social or educational benefit, or, truth be told, simply welcome the distraction; teachers, who let kids convince them they can multi-task; the media, with its slick marketing machine; highly-cultivated peer pressure; and, of course, the sheer sexiness of the technology.

I figure there are some people out here who still enjoy reading more than 140 characters at a time.

Of course, all of this is happening on the watch of parents, who are not only failing to set limits, but are, themselves, becoming addicted to the same pastimes.

You must have known the disclaimer would come: I can't rail against all this technology and the social media revolution without admitting my own hypocrisy. The "on" generation epitomizes the sped-up, dumbed-down world I decry. Yet, to spread my message, I find myself using the very machines and media I so despise. I'm on just about everything. Okay, I admit, it's fun. It really is.

In feeble defense I can say, first of all, that I think many blogs, including my own, have substance. What's more, I've not yet fallen for the "sound bite" approach to my message. I figure there have to be some people out here who still enjoy more than looking at a picture or two, or reading more than 140 characters at a time.
Let's resolve to nudge a child outdoors and introduce
her or him to curiosity, discovery and wonder. These companions, with no agenda except just being, will
never "unfriend" them.


Meg said...

Jeff, wow and right on! This essay touched on many valid points, including how the definition of a "Friend" has been de-valued. I had the bizarre experience of being Friended by a man who had bullied me in high school and made my senior year miserable (I actually turned lemons into lemonade by blogging about it!) I also can see my own attention span and heart rate being adversely affected by the accelerated rate at which information keeps coming at us...I just hope the capacity of our collective souls can keep up with (or exceed?) what is now expected of our brain power. And, last but not least...generations that arent familiar with Nature arent as likely to seek solutions to the challenges she faces. Jeff, provocative post!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Meg. Folks like us need to spread the word about these concerns and do what we can to promote the values of real-life experience -- especially for kids. Your take on travel and wonder is a great contribution to that effort!

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