Phone usage dominates all aspects of life
Students are increasingly over dependent on technology. | Tomber Su/THE CHIMES [file]
A few weeks ago I gave a chapel talk on boredom. Not all of you were there. You may have had conflicts. You may have been sleeping. You may have been cramming. Or you may have thought a chapel message on boredom would be, well, boring.
A willingness to be bored
During the talk I referenced how much my thinking on this matter has been influenced by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, she talks about scientists who conducted a study about the “willingness to be bored.” They told groups of people to sit quietly without phones for 15 minutes. The people were also asked ahead of time if they would consider self-administering an electric shock if they became bored.
Everyone responded, “Absolutely not!” Even if they were bored, they said they would not shock themselves. After about six minutes, however, a good number of them were shocking themselves rather than sitting there bored.
Conversation and connectivity
We have this craving to fill every spare moment in our life with something to break the boredom. Often social media or texts or Internet browsing is how we fill the vacuum. We have to be connected. We have to wake in the morning and look at our phones to see what we have missed in the night.
Connectivity is the fear of missing something, so we stay linked at all times. But conversation is different than connectivity. Conversation is life-giving and soul restoring because it allows relationship to happen. It often wanders with no agenda except the person or people you are with, even if the only person you are with is you.
I read in Turkle’s book about another study demonstrating that when we are with someone else, the mere presence of a phone on the table — even if that phone is turned off or upside-down — diminishes greatly the ability for a conversation to go deep. A visible phone sends a subconscious message that at any moment we might be interrupted. It communicates that the phone is one more participant in the conversation. And if we think we are going to be interrupted, it is hard for the conversation to reach a meaningful level.
A decline in empathy
So, it comes as no surprise that over the past few decades there has been a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students toward each other, with most of the decline within the past 10 years.
One professor said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek but with a ring of truth, that the most commonly heard phrase at meals on college campuses is, “Wait, what?” as students look up from their phones.
Relationships are complex and demanding. We cannot go deep on relationships if we do not minimize the distractors that diminish the profundity of conversations that happen the old fashioned way — extended and face-to-face, and wandering deeper on things that matter.
As Turkle says, "We don’t [even] have to apologize to each other; we can type, ‘I’m sorry.’ And hit send [with an emoji]. But face-to-face, you get to see that you have hurt the other person. The other person gets to see that you are upset. It is this realization that triggers the beginning of forgiveness."
And students, it is not just your generation. It is mine. If you ever see me texting while walking across campus and not looking you in the eye and saying hello, you have permission to call me out. It is not easy to embrace the virtues of boredom in today's hyper-connected world, but it is important.