Long before the explosion of social media and its underlying technology, I wrote nearly every day. As in writing on paper, with a pen. I copied down quotes I loved, wrote (stupid) poems, and generally poured my heart out in the typical cringe-worthy way of a teenager or young adult. Even to this day, I've shared very little from these volumes with anyone. I wrote for catharsis alone, to find out what I was thinking, uncensored, unedited, fearlessly, knowing I had no audience.
Now I very rarely write without an audience in mind, whether it's for the blog, an article pitch, a book idea. And then I wonder why I feel stifled, fearful, cautious, why my writing feels stilted and contrived. It has become less about what's in my heart and more about what image I want to project. Less about personal catharsis and more about connecting with the reader. And there's nothing wrong with connecting with the reader, but I'm wondering whether in this culture of pervasive technology and chronic over-sharing, that this lived-out-loud life is robbing us of something precious. Have we lost the capacity to feel without texting or calling or telling someone how we're feeling? To form opinions without sharing (and defending) them online? This practice, this art of introspection, staying within ourselves long enough to process thoughts and emotions, have we written over it entirely in our clambering to be heard above the constant clatter of social media?
In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle shares anecdotes and quotes from interviews with teenagers growing up in the age of hyper-connectedness. She reflects on how two high school seniors, Claudia and Julia, rely on texting as a nearly exclusive way of experiencing and validating their emotions. She writes:
"What is not being cultivated here is the ability to be alone and reflect on one's emotions in private. On the contrary, teenagers report discomfort when they are without their cell phones. They need to be connected in order to feel like themselves. Put in a more positive way, both Claudia and Julia share feelings as part of discovering them. They cultivate a collaborative self."
I reluctantly admit that this resonates with me. When I read a beautiful passage in a book, my first reaction is often to wonder where I might share it, whether in a blog post, on Twitter or Facebook. When I have a breakthrough in perspective, I begin crafting a post in my head, plotting how I might explain it to whoever is listening. When I see a beautiful sunrise, rather than letting the moment envelop me and getting lost in my own thoughts as I once would, my first thought now is to take a picture with my phone.
This constant deciphering whether a thought or moment or a scene is worth sharing (online, with friends or readers) becomes a distraction from the moment itself. And if it seems worth sharing, then immediately, I am gone from that moment of introspection and beauty, and fidgeting with my phone to text or post or snap a picture. But if I stay in that moment, stay in my own head and never share it, I miss out on validation. It feels "less real" somehow.
Now I realize that I am more engaged with social media and more dependent on technology (and by technology, I mean my blasted iPhone) than the average 30-something. In contrast, my husband and many of my closest friends do not blog or read blogs, rarely look at Facebook let alone update their status, and only use their phones for good old fashioned calls. What concerns me isn't necessarily the way my generation has or has not adapted to the internet age and embraced a tethered-to-technology way of living. I've lived more than half of my formative and adult years without this hyper-connectedness, and I know how to contrast it to the way I live now. I can catch myself in the error. I can correct my thinking, set limits as necessary, eliminate distractions, go back to the purity of journal writing.
What worries me is the generation growing up now, coming of age in a world where they don't know what it means to be "out of touch" with family or friends, even for an hour. Where life is lived as a series of status updates and wall posts and texts, all providing endless ways to compare themselves and feel inferior, endless ways to project an image while ignoring who it is they really are.
If I, with the confidence and wisdom that accompanies middle age, having had a host of life experiences and meaningful relationships, if I still struggle with feelings of inferiority (in the online comparison game no one wins), with feeling as though experiences are only validated if they are shared and seen, then how much more must a teenager struggle? I fear we have heaped upon them an impossible task, to come of age with a constant and cruel audience, leaving no room at all to cultivate the lost art of introspection.
With this in mind, I'd like to explore how we might rise above, be it as 41 or 14 year olds, to move beyond the distractions of this clattering, clambering online culture and to cultivate a quieter sense of self. I welcome your ideas, advice and perspective.
Do you identify with feeling more distracted and less free to be truly introspective given the permeation of social media and technology? If so, what steps have you taken or considered taking to find a place of balance? As a parent, how have you approached the issues of phones, internet use, social media with your children and teens? Any words of wisdom or advice to share on how we address these challenges with those coming of age in this everything-online generation?