Have you noticed that being physically present in the moment is often becoming a challenge for both kids and adults alike? You walk by a group of teens hanging out together and they are all staring at their mobile phones rather than engaging with each other. You are having a conversation with someone who is continually attending to their smartphone. You see a family eating out together in the restaurant who are spending as much time with their own devices as they are with their cutlery.

You see a parent at the playground absorbed on their phone while their children play (read Parents, Wired to Distraction). You see people retreat to their virtual social spaces while ignoring those in the room with them, easily connecting with their friends online while struggling to maintain vibrant friendships in the flesh. You are out with family and seem more passionate about snapping selfies and other photos to share with your Facebook and Instagram friends/followers, missing the special moments, serendipitous moments – of just being present. You see drivers engaged with their mobile devices when they should have their eyes and attention on the road. You see accidents due to efforts to multitask – you hear about terrible tragedies due to driving and texting. You hear and read about tragedy due to cyberbullying, Internet addiction, the Internet-related dumbing down of America, and social media contributing to loneliness and even depression. In this video, summarizing some of the ideas of Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk, “Connected, but Alone”, based upon her research and ensuing book,  Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, she states that we are “Sacrificing intimacy of friendship with instant communication – Having many friends while feeling lonely.”

In this fantastic slam poetry performance, the poet concludes that maybe our cheap virtual replacements for human connection and intimacy will be resolved “…when our technology is advanced enough to make us human again.” In this viral video, Look Up, the message is to be present in the moment, avoid striving to be defined by the [false?] images we can easily craft in digital spaces, and to not look exclusively to digital spaces and affordances for real connection. It’s even killing us! In Japan, more than a dozen people fall off railway platforms while looking at their phones each year! (source)

Maybe you can even personally identify with some of these situations. However, before you do something drastic because I’ve made you so depressed, read on. Few would disagree that our new tools and hyper-connectivity are raising new challenges and new concerns where health, safety, and social/emotional well-being are concerned. Of course, as we struggle to make sense of it all, there exists some interesting dualism (see digital dualism). We think nothing of someone curled up on the sofa or in bed with a good book. Yet, we often have a different reaction to someone who does this but uses a digital device. They are somehow being withdrawn or self-absorbed. We praise those who read, even while in the same room together, yet are sometimes quick to point out how those reading on digital devices are somehow anti-social or digital junkies.

Creative Commons, Flickr – Dean Shareski/Steve Ransom

We thought nothing of images like the one below many decades ago, but replace all of the newspapers with iPods and suddenly we are now a culture of self-absorbed, Internet-dependent, distracted individuals who can’t relate to each other any more.

Creative Commons, Flickr – Steve Ransom

While at my son’s baseball game, I noticed the following family as they cheered on their grandson/son. At first I found myself annoyed with the grandparents who had succumbed to their “digital addictions” instead of being present in the moment. Later, after thinking about the two photographs, I realized that there was really no difference between the two scenarios, yet I was so much more forgiving of the analog one.

Creative Commons, Flickr – Steve Ransom

How about in the local coffee shop? Do we think about the following individuals differently? I think we do if we are honest. When we see people reading analog print media, we see it as normal coffee shop behavior. When we see people doing the same on their digital devices, we talk about the loss of face to face communication – “No one talks to each other any more.” This concept of digital dualism is one many of us struggle with and one that many of us have yet to acknowledge and even understand. However, I think it is this notion that analog is normal and digital is “extra” that causes us many problems and keeps us from moving forward. Nathan Jurgenson sheds light on the concept in this way:

we have been taught to mistakenly view online as meaning not offline. The notion of the offline as real and authentic is a recent invention, corresponding with the rise of the online. If we can fix this false separation and view the digital and physical as enmeshed, we will understand that what we do while connected is inseparable from what we do when disconnected. (source)

Our own discomfort with cultural and technological shifts – and even nostalgia for times less messy or complex, get in our way and confuse the issues and challenges of our day. Rather than a digital and dualistic view of our human experience, what we are wrestling with is our reality which has become augmented – digitally augmented. Our lives, our reality, now has a digital component that is inextricable from what we know as ‘real life’. (see digital dualism) When teens are together and simultaneously on their mobile devices, they are being

Steve Ransom, Flickr

highly social, but to us adults, it doesn’t always seem that way. Danah Boyd points out in her research that when teens look at their phones, they often share the screen with the person sitting next to them, reading or viewing something together. This new reality for them doesn’t have distinct borders drawn between the physical and the digital at all. It is the adults that tend to use their mobile devices in much more solitary ways. (It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens) So, our challenge really becomes one of attention and mindfulness. Howard Rheingold and Cathy Davidson are two individuals who have shared quite a bit about this. Speaking specifically about Facebook, but I think generalizable to this larger discussion, this psychologist and researcher concludes that:

Getting rid of Facebook wouldn’t change the fact that our attention is, more and more frequently, forgetting the path to proper, fulfilling engagement. And in that sense, Facebook isn’t the problem. It’s the symptom. (source)

Dan Willingham, in his critique of the assumptions of the likes of Nicholas Carr (The Shallows) and others who suggest that we are losing our ability to focus due to the rich and instant access to a myriad of information and media afforded by Internet connectivity, surmises,

it’s not that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to… If I’m right, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully. The bad news is that we don’t want to.

Creative Commons, Flickr – Ed Yourdon

We are forgetting to manage our attention and be mindful of how our tools change us. In the oft-quoted idea of  Marshall McLuhan, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”, he exposes the idea that “at first, technology serves as an extension of humankind but after a while a subliminal flip takes place and suddenly the user is transformed into an extension of the technology they have come to consider part of them” (source). However true this pathology is, there are certainly things that we can do – must do – to positively influence technology’s power in our lives and in our world. In this post by teacher and blogger, Pernille Ripp, she describes Facebook’s role in the loss of drive to nurture true friendships and develop deep connections to others, but goes on to point out that it is not the fault of these new social learning spaces [Facebook].

We CAN do something about this if we only recognize when this is happening.

Mindfulness. Is the solution to create “anti-technology zoning for cognitive health – to protect us from our own worst instincts”? To create Wifi or network-free zones so that we can actually focus on the people we are with?

Mindfulness. Is the solution to pay hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, to attend a tech-free camp – a digital detox?

Mindfulness. Is the solution to install apps on our devices that force us to take digital breaks or block access to all social media? Maybe they can help a little.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness can be defined as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience” (source). Another defines it this way. “Mindfulness means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness.”  The same article goes on to say, “While the technique of mindfulness isn’t hard, developing a disciplined practice can feel like an Olympic challenge — which is where education comes in.” Developing a “disciplined practice” applies to much more than the digital in life. It relates to what we eat, how we exercise, what we read, how we grow and develop professionally, how we deal with stress, with anger, and so much more.

So, are we teaching our children and our students how to do these things, how to be aware – mindful – of how our tools change us? Are we teaching them how to live healthy and balanced lives in an augmented (digitally-mediated) reality? Are we teaching them how to use these new tools and spaces in meaningful, positive, and powerful ways? Are we modeling these very behaviors and practices ourselves? Are we teaching them to be wise, kind, empathetic, empowered citizens in ALL the spaces of our current reality? Or, are we still sending a dualistic view that “the digital” is somehow different, that how we behave virtually needs a different set of rules then how we behave when face-to-face, that we have to not only teach how to be good citizens, but also how to be good “digital citizens”? (see The Myth Of Digital Citizenship And Why We Need To Teach It Anyway)

Are we teaching our children and our students how to be aware – mindful – of how our tools change us?

For, if we continue with this dualistic perspective, we continue to send mixed messages to children. If it’s not acceptable to say mean things to someone face-to-face, how is it okay on Facebook? If bullying is indeed wrong, how is it somehow okay to do it anonymously in virtual spaces? Without a doubt, there are new skill sets (literacies) and subtleties to be learned in digital spaces, but the danger is to even approach the concept of mindfulness in a dualistic manner – in a way that makes it worth considering only because of our new digital complications. This, too, is a fallacy. I think we have just failed to include the concept of mindfulness in our digitally-expanded reality. Mindfulness is not just some kind of remedy for the digital ills of our age. For example,

  • Am I listening well to others?
  • Am I noticing those around me in need?
  • Do I consider the feelings of others?
  • Is what I’m doing hurting me? Hurting others?
  • Am I sacrificing important family time for my own interests?
  • If I were working for me, what would I think about myself?
  • How will my message be received by others?
  • When in a group, is there someone I am excluding? Am I being too controlling?
  • Am I being productive? Is something stopping me from being so?
  • Could what I just said be interpreted as mean or hurtful?
  • Am I spending too much time doing ____________?

Angela Maiers shares a list of 12 things to consider that has everything to do with being mindful every day; not just when face-to-face, but everywhere we are. Metacognitive (understanding and regulating our thinking) and self talk strategies are strategically taught employed in the classroom as we help students become strategic and independent learners, but this mindset is much bigger than just the teaching of writing or mathematics. Mindfulness is very much a metacognitive process that must be explicitly modeled, experienced, and learned. When teens learn to drive, we don’t just hand them the keys and say, “Be wise and careful.” Yet, too often, in digital spaces and with digital tools, they’s very much what we do. We have a well-established program of driver education in this country. Driving is something that we are all very familiar and comfortable with. Likely, as our reality has grown to include more and more of the digital, many adults have become less and less comfortable and knowledgeable with it.

This translates to our inability to effectively teach in these spaces and model effective, wise, and powerful dispositions and practices. So, we resort to targeted lessons and programs in online safety, digital citizenship, online plagiarism, digital bullying, etc, but go on to live, within the walls of the school at least, as if these things are somehow different, add-ons, a new or different reality (dualism again) that we must tolerate. If we’re to help children grow to be mindful of how their actions impact themselves, those around them and their world at large, we have to stop treating “the digital” as if it is something different. So, what are some strategies for making an augmented view of mindfulness part of the fabric of our lives so that it includes all of our tools and spaces?

1. Model it. Live it

In the classroom, in the car, at the restaurant, while on vacation, at home. “Children old enough to know the word “hypocrite” were always ready to apply it to parents who made rules about children’s screen use (no texting at the table!) but disregarded those rules themselves. We are all highly susceptible to the idea that our own messages or imperatives or contacts are singularly urgent.” (source)

2. Talk/write about it

Make it a safe and normal topic of study. Let students explore how issues of mindfulness (and lack thereof) impact their lives. Make video PSAs or other projects to spread the word.

3. Explicitly teach it

“Mindfulness has the potential to be a very useful component in prevention and treatment efforts because of its effectiveness in reducing emotional distress and promoting emotional balance, improving attention, and contributing to motivated learning.” (source)

4. Create meaningful relationships

With each other, with other classrooms, with other experts and learners, regardless of time or space.

5. Work effectively together

With all of the tools at our disposal today. Broaden your perspective of “together” to include ‘global togetherness’. Our world has no walls or borders any more and new possibilities can be astoundingly beautiful and powerful.

6. Manage time well

Be aware of how tools and spaces raise new, but surmountable challenges.

7. Learn to be wise, kind, and empathetic

Period. Help students see the connections and relationships between analog and digital.

8. Set A-L-E-R-T-S

Attention, Limits, Engagement, Relationships, Time, Space (source, #5)

9. Take breaks

Water breaks. Learning breaks. Digital breaks.

10. Don’t sensationalize the digital

It is here to stay. Incorporate it in meaningful and powerful ways in the classroom. It’s the ‘new normal’ and opens up a world of incredible opportunity. Just as our current reality is continually being augmented, we need to continually fight for and prepare every generation to live rich, rewarding and meaningful lives full of significance. As I gathered resources for this post, I ran across this conference titled Wisdom 2.0. It states its charge this way and it seems like a fitting end here.

Wisdom 2.0 addresses the great challenge of our age: to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world.


Feature image used with permission from Guillermo Romero, Flickr.

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