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Overconnected - the de-socialization of our youth

 

I recently met an old Navy buddy for coffee at a Starbuck's. As we sat catching up over our Venti "Doublecaf-whatchamacallits" my attention kept getting drawn to a table of teenagers sitting near us. Here were six teenagers sitting in a coffee shop and not saying a word to each other. They were too busy staring down at their phones with their thumbs moving so fast I think they might risk injuring themselves.

I was shocked that a group of teenagers could be so quiet. As the father of teenage daughters I know how much noise they can make; Like a pack of coyotes during a full moon. But, here was this table full of teenagers as silent as retirees at a church service.

I took a moment to look around and realized that it is not just the teenagers lost online. Every table had someone staring at a screen on a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. I am just as guilty. I carry a smartphone and a tablet or laptop with me all the time. I receive text alerts with score updates, weather alerts, and email alerts for work. My friends and family know the best way to reach me is by text because they know my smart phone is always close.

As a whole society has become reliant on the internet for connectivity, news, information, and social acceptance. Current generations, used to having information right at their fingertips, do not know what it is like to have to go to a library to look up information in an encyclopedia and use the Dewey Decimal system for finding books. Instead of meeting face to face and having conversations, communication has become reduced to text messages, tweets, and posts on social media sites.

Why should it matter how many retweets something I posted gets or how many likes? Why is it acceptable to post something you would never say to someone face to face? When did virtual validation become more important than producing quality work? Human interaction and conversation have almost become obsolete.

I attend a modest sized university in central Massachusetts. As an older student (49) I am an outsider. My attempts at conversation with most of the students in my classes are painful encounters at best.  Most students are wary of engaging in conversation with someone so much older. When I can engage them in conversation, there is little eye contact and visible discomfort. Most of the time they resort to looking down at their phones; eager to find a distraction so that they don’t have to participate in the conversation.

Try this as an experiment, spend an afternoon disconnected and go to a local cafe. Sit and watch how people interact. People are so "connected" all the time now they have forgotten how to interact socially. Text jargon has leached its way into speech patterns; people are now speaking in text and internet shorthand. I actually heard this phrase while sitting in that same Starbucks “OMG she is so ratchet!”

                I cannot imagine the person uttering that phrase could walk up to the individual they were talking about and utter that same phrase without an all-out brawl ensuing. The constant use of the internet and social media has stripped people of common sense, propriety, and social grace. In real life, I enjoy sitting across from someone and holding an actual conversation; making eye contact and exchanging thoughts and enjoying the moment. Conversation seems to have become a lost art form.

Recently while dining out with one of my daughters, I held a conversation with a waitress at a popular sports bar. My daughter, convinced I was flirting with the waitress, told me “stop trying to make new friends.” The truth of the situation was, I was just having a conversation. It wasn’t a conversation about anything more than the university I attend and the fact that the waitress recognized me from campus because she is also a student there. It didn’t stop my daughter from thinking my conversation was something more than that. Why else would you talk to somebody? 

Has real conversation become a utilitarian process? Being present in the moment and sharing an experience, like sitting in a cafe to enjoy a tiramisu and a latte while engaging in conversation, seem to be lost on modern society. Shut your phone off, sit down, and let’s chat.