Monday, August 8, 2011

Mobile Madness

I think our culture is obsessed with technology. More specifically, we're obsessed with our cell phones.  And I mean OBSESSED.

I was out to dinner with my mentor a couple of days ago, and something suddenly struck me: EVERY person waiting for a table was looking at or talking on their phone. One guy even had his iPad out. Even people sitting in their seats -- at tables, with their friends or families or dates or whoever -- were using their phones.  Across from me, two middle-aged couples sat next to one another, and each of them was silently looking at their iPhone or Blackberry. Clearly, something is wrong when people who are out on dates won't even talk to their spouses because their smart phones take a higher priority.

I was guilty of it, too. My mentor had to take a call (don't worry - it was actually a legitimately important call!), and so I sat at my table for about 20 minutes, just waiting. And what did I do to pass the time? Cleared my text inbox and sent a few texts out myself.  If the Orthodox priest at the next table was looking at his phone during dinner, surely I could take out my phone and take care of a few things.... It was almost like a safety blanket, like a comfortable distraction that made me look a little less pitiful as a sat in a crowded restaurant alone for 20 minutes, like I actually had friends because they were corresponding with me via satellite.  That's what we do when we feel awkward or out of place or bored or distracted, right? We pick up our cellular device and check our Facebook or email or inbox, hoping that someone was actually trying to communicate with us, when there is someone right in front of us just dying for some face-to-face interaction.

At least, that's what I've found to be true with kids. And they are more cell phone-obsessed than any generation before them.  At Young Life and WyldLife camp, we ask kids to turn in their cell phones at the beginning of the week because we know what an isolating distraction they can be.  We want them fully present, fully engaged, so that they don't miss what the Father would have to say to them.  Some kids get in your face about it. Many of them pretend they already turned it in and secretly keep it with them all week.  Without fail, when we return their phones at the end of the week, kids shout for joy and say things like, "My baby!",  "I missed you!" and "Oh, civilization!". The second they press the power button, their inboxes are barraged with texts from their friends, calling them back into the worlds we as leaders work so hard to get them out of, even for just a few days.

Usually, I can't even get a kid to respond to me unless I send them a text. Texting is their preferred method of communication. Half the time I can't even understand their text language because everything is written in acronyms or spelled wrong on purpose (which drives me CRAZY as a English major). I'm still the lame adult who texts full words and uses punctuation. But when I can spend face time with a kid, I find that they are hungry for a real conversation with a person made of flesh and blood.  They want to be truly heard.  And they want to listen. Don't we all?

Yet we still resort to a less personal mode of communicating. We break up over a text or by changing our relationship status.  We tell someone we're mad at them or that we love them with a simple text. We do business over text messages and email. We establish our identity by creating an online profile and check it obsessively on our phones.

It's sad, really. I think we're missing something when our most valuable appendage is a phone. Cell phones are clearly here to stay, and they only seem to be getting more complex.  Don't get me wrong - they're not all bad. They're extremely helpful in many situations, and I've found myself grateful for our society's technological advances more than once. I just can't help but feel that a giant communication black hole has been created because of cell phones. So what can we do about it?

Perhaps one of the reasons that I love the ministry of Young Life is that our highest priority is being with people. Spending time with kids and leaders is how we share life with them, because that's how Jesus lived. A cell phone can't replace a face-to-face conversation or a shared experience. That's where relationships are built and that is where they are maintained -- in the "withness." I hope we never lose sight of that.

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