This post has a reader participation activity at the end. Just like Blue’s Clues!
I was on a bus the other day. I saw a seven year old girl looking up at the adults, the way kids do. Quiet, observing, not yet self-aware, taking in clues about what life is like and how people are supposed to be. Kids accept it because they don’t have any other experience. Do you remember doing this?
I did a lot of that as a kid because I was the youngest of my whole extended family. I looked up and saw adults in lively conversation about things I didn’t understand. I saw strangers acknowledge strangers. I saw people look out windows and think their own thoughts. So I did too.
What do you think the little girl on the bus saw? I followed her eyes. 100% of the adults were looking at their phones. My eyes looked down in shame, but hers remained wide open. Absorbing.
Our smartphone obsession is one of the defining conversations of our generation. There have been so many viral cartoons and articles and videos about this topic, so why add my voice to the noise? I can’t even fit my thoughts into a cute rhyme.
The thing is, I think smartphones are also good. I know a lot of people who complain about them, but I don’t know anyone who stopped using them. Myself included. Right now, my phone is sitting in front of the keyboard as I type.
But it wasn’t that long ago when things weren’t like this. Back in the 90s, when you were at a place and it was boring, you had to make it interesting. When you took a crap, you just stared at the door in front of you and crapped.
My whole philosophy on smartphones changed when I started teaching 18-24 year olds at an English language school in California. I went into the school with high hopes for the future of humanity and our relationship with technology. I left wishing I could go back in time to find the first person who invented fire and slap it out of his hand.
The school had just a few basic classroom rules that it expected students to follow. Keep the class clean. Only speak English in classes. Don’t use your phone.
At the start, I wanted to be the cool teacher, the renegade, the Captain my Captain who ripped up rulebooks but repaired souls. But I mean, keeping the classroom clean is an understandable rule. I decided I wouldn’t rip that one out.
As time went on, I realized it actually is a problem for students to speak languages other than English. The reason they come to the US to study English is because they want to be surrounded by the language. The goal is to be able to think in English so you don’t need to translate. To do this, people have to stop explaining things to them in their native language. Otherwise, I’m just wasting my students’ money. So I started following that rule too.
It took me longer to understand why smartphones are bad for class, but I finally came to agree with that rule too. The first reason is that you’re not in the moment when you’re on your phone. This is the main one people complain about with phones. You’re out with friends and instead of talking to the people, you’re updating your social media status which those same people at the table will see later that night. This problem is even more pronounced in a classroom when you have to explain directions for the third time in a row because someone was sending a snapchat of his shoelaces.
But as the years went on and I observed hundreds of students come and go from all over the world, I started to see another and more meaningful problem. These kids are never bored. And boredom is valuable. Critically valuable. I never realized that until this device came along that gobbled up all our boredom.
When I was a kid, my mom would tell me I couldn’t watch TV or play video games. I told her I was bored and she told me to figure it out. Sometimes that meant playing video games with no volume so she didn’t know. But just sometimes, it meant walking around the house until something caught my eye. Like the bookshelf.
I’d pull out random books and look through them. I’d read through encyclopedias just for fun. I started to realize that I liked books, so I wrote one. I folded sheets of white paper together, stapled the fold, and wrote a book about talking animals that did kung fu.
I learned that I like writing. I began keeping a journal. Writing became like a good friend that took my feelings and processed them into thoughts I could understand.
In short, I discovered my identity because I was bored. I had nothing to do, so I made something to do. That doesn’t happen anymore because the smartphone is the ultimate boredom killing device. Any spare time you have at any point in the day can be entertained. Social media and technology fills all of your time, leaving no time to fill yourself.
Smartphones aren’t bad, which is why people complain about them but keep using them. They’re amazingly useful things. What’s bad is how we use them. We need to be aggressive about having our own thoughts. We need to learn how to use them and not be used up by them.
It’s a matter of living life actively, rather than passively. Are you going to make your own thoughts and make your own fun, or have your thoughts and fun handed to you. One produces interesting people. The other produces robots, pre-programmed by one-line memes.
At that school in California, I did a lot of student-led activities. The best way to learn a language isn’t to study grammar and vocab. The best way is to practice it. So I created activities for my students to speak, write, and create. Now this may be a stretch, but I swear to god I could handpick which of my students were and weren’t addicted to their phones based on their performance in these activities.
The un-addicted students had the ability to put energy into an activity to make it fun. The addicted students only had experience being entertained, not entertaining. So they were boring.
By the way, the worst thing you can do in life is be boring. I remember the students I enjoyed, of course. I also remember the students that I fought with. But who would want to be one of the students I forgot?
So let’s do a practice in active thinking. Here’s the reader participation bit.
Do you remember as a kid on Saturday afternoon when you had finished your chores, you could just stare at the ceiling and think? No one else’s thoughts, all your own creation. No direction to the thought, just following where the mind goes.
I can’t remember the last time I did this. We’re now so connected to TV and music and internet shoving so many thoughts into our minds, we don’t get the chance to make our own. Our minds don’t wander and create now, they just follow the next link.
I don’t want to follow a link. I want to have my own thoughts. So after the last word of this post, turn your monitor off. Turn off the TV and the music. Leave it all off for just a few minutes and I guarantee you’ll feel it. The mind will start to get bored.
You’ll want to ease the boredom, but don’t cheat yourself out of this valuable experience. Endure it. Don’t get up to fill the boredom, the mind itself will get up and move about. Create. That’s you. Not the next status, the next text, the next link. You are that wandering mind is you, so nurture it.
Let’s do it together. Turn off this monitor, silence the phone, and think.