As screen addicts swipe and scroll incessantly, life passes by unnoticed

Peter Kammerer says while we are engrossed in feeding our inane addiction to social media, we miss making connections for real

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 12:44pm

Every language seems to have a term for them: the looking-down generation, the people, so many of us among them, who are so engrossed in their electronic devices that they walk into others. When they're not scrolling through pages, they're pulling out their selfie stick for a happy snap, no matter how trivial the moment may be. Each to their own, of course, but as with any addiction, there's a point where more is being lost than achieved. For too many of us, what is disappearing is life.

Some parents and teachers realise this: it's why they're confiscating phones and tablets or imposing screen-free days. But adults don't as often have someone to tell them enough is enough, especially amid so much gadget fever. When world leaders are busy taking selfies with each other, everyone has a Facebook account, Instagram postings become second nature and Twitter feeds are viewed as essential to stay informed, it's difficult to tear eyes away. We all know too much of one thing is not good, but how can connectedness and knowledge be bad?

Hip-hop artist Pitbull and rock music singer Roger Daltrey think otherwise. In interviews last week with US radio show host Howard Stern, they claimed that mobile devices were harming society. Pitbull contended all the downward-staring was leading people to miss the "big picture" - life. He has a rule when in family and social settings : "No phones, no pictures, no cameras - everything stays in your mind." For Daltrey, the constant flow of information, often of little or no consequence, was stifling creativity. "When we're doing nothing is when we get our great thoughts, our great artistic ideas," he said. "You're never going to get an epiphany when you're being fed stuff all the time."

But the inordinate attachment to smartphones is also stopping a generation from looking forward, around and at each other. While we're checking out a pinged Facebook update or reading comments from haters and thinking up ways to be mean back to them, we're ignoring the cooing pigeon that's landed on the window ledge, the flash of colour as the sun sets and the cute person of the opposite sex who has been eyeballing us from the other side of the MTR carriage. Instead, most of the time, we come away with something trivial or not urgent to attend to. Call them lost experiences or missed opportunities; whichever, they are life passing us by.

Anyone who has been around people with drug or alcohol addiction knows that these are similar symptoms. If a device is picked up absent-mindedly, has to be used in a meeting, while walking the dog, during a concert or at the meal table with the family, there's obviously a problem. Unfortunately, society doesn't yet view it that way.

Friends and family can help - if they can drag themselves away from their own gadgets long enough. Taking devices from children and encouraging other activities is good training. And for those who recognise they have a problem, there are some small steps to help with recovery: Not putting the phone under the pillow at night, reading books rather than Twitter, making meal times a screen-free zone and looking at strangers and smiling instead of swiping and scrolling. Society will be better for it.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post