This message will be wildly unpopular with kids, teens, adults, friends, spouses, former dog-walkers, grandparents, plumbers, commuters, librarians, postal workers, that guy who prepares your french fries at Mickey-D’s, and everyone else in between.

So let’s get to it: Screen Time has gotten out of control—reckless, flaming-car-crashing-and-tumbling-toward-you, out of control.

Hey, don’t shoot the messenger—I’m just observing what I see in my home, in my workplace, in my church, and every else in between.

Yes, I’m 100% serious.

In a time not distant, it will be possible to flash any image formed in thought on a screen and render it visible at any place desired. The perfection of this means of reading thought will create a revolution for the better in all our social relations. ~ Nikola Tesla

Today’s culture of technology seems to be on par with the inventor’s Reading Thought theory. Yes, at will we can conjure any image, video, retrieve infinite tidbits of information, or tap into the rich history of the world on our mobile devices. Yes, it is all possible now, however I will insert my own opinion and say that I am doubtful that our Internet Age has improved all of our social relations. Sorry, but I believe Tesla was incorrect. Case in point to follow…

Revelations in a Mall Food Court

Yesterday my two teens were scheduled to attend a Teen Group event at the local farm: hayrides, corn maze, pumpkin pickin’. That was until the weather took a thunderstorm turn for the worst. With excessive rains the day before, continuing into the afternoon, the farm excursion was cancelled. Even so, the group of teens from church decided to stick to the original plan of Lunch Before Farm, and with a regrouping of twenty or twenty-five youths and adults, we found ourselves in the Food Court at the mall.

It sounded like a great plan: social time at the Food Court so the youths of Youth Group could gather and spend some time together. Sandwiches, noodles, slices of pizza; each teen gathered their own grub and returned to the epicenter of fun and fellowship. Once the food was consumed, you would have expected each teenager to mingle with each other, mixing it up, getting to know someone else, or to simply ask how their week had gone. But, not so.

When I tell children that they are far too dependent on their gizmos, they do not deny it. But they really don’t care. This is their real life – texting about trivial things; listening to numbing music on their private headphones. The machines block everything out – you create your own little trivial world. ~ Bill O’Reilly

I watched in amazement as the majority of teens focused in on their own iPhone, iPod, or individual mobile device. Faces illuminated by electric light, sneers of contentment upon their faces, elbow to elbow with another teen in their group (while oblivious to the human and physical presence beside them). My heart was breaking for these teens. They are so consumed by the draw of web-based content, to the point of disregarding another human sitting within proximity. I’d love to say that my own teens were exempt from such behavior, but I regretfully cannot.

I saw that my daughter—a freshly minted addition to this year’s Teen Group—was just milling around, from table to table, looking for some human interaction. Heads down, faces focused on phones, people. I called her over to my grown-up table and started talking with her, announcing my observation about her own Teen Group. She had noticed, even commenting on her older brother engrossed in his own Digital Disneyland.

As I discussed the topic with her, a family friend was eavesdropping on our conversation, and we discussed it further. My heart is literally breaking for the youth of America. Social media does not draw you closer to another human, but it provides a safe buffer for you to watch another person’s life from a distance. From that safe distance, you are vastly aware of their personal life, loves, hates, and lusts. It is all available for your consumption, from a distance that doesn’t even require human interaction.

I am convinced that the youth of today does not know how to communicate with another human being. I’m not talking about proficiency with a texting keyboard, a thumbs-up on a Facebook post, a snippet of content retweeted. I am talking about the art of talking. You know, conversation? With words and eye contact? And laughter, or even tears? Don’t know where to start? See: Art of Coffee Shop Conversation.

Revelations of an Adult

If you recall the intro paragraph, you will notice that today’s narrative is not focused solely on the teenage population. As a matter of fact, adults are just as guilty—and I would say, even more so.

As a die-hard commuter, I punch my commuter time clock of one hour in each direction, and I’m a bit of an expert on the adult dependency of electronics, mobile devices, and streaming media. Let’s say it plainly, there is nothing we’d (I’m lumping myself into this category, for the sake of honesty) rather do than to immerse ourselves in our own Digital Disneyland. Nothing else—I see this behavior everyday.

Adults keep to themselves, bury their faces in a screen, or snuff out the inconvenience of noise behind cushioned earphones. For both directions of my commute, the sounds of travel are minimal and reduced to the shifting of a transmission, the mechanical release of double exit doors, or the rumble of pavement. Adults are too preoccupied with their own world to care anything about everything else that is happening around them. Well, you may position behind the statement that we are all strangers on the bus, on the train, at the crosswalk. Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean the people around you are invisible, so stop treating them as such.

How about the oblivious people walking down the street with their faces downward, enjoying the latest episode of Stranger Things? Don’t even get me started. Come on, you know who you are.

But the one action that should be punishable by a court of law is this: when a group of adults (already acquaintances) sit around and stare at their mobile phones, checking Facebook, researching random facts, texting someone else, plowing through the next board on Candy Crush. Or how about the parent that ignores their child, in favor of an electronic device and the promises of fun found within? Come on, once again, you know who you are.

Revelations of a Hypocrite

While I am aware of the world in which I live, including the perils of getting lost in your own digital wonderland, I am not exempt from the same behavior. You can find me, on any given day, engaged in activities that directly contradict my above diatribe.

Sometimes I choose texting as my preferred means of communication, because it provides a buffer to the conversation, allowing me to filter which statements to respond to (or even chose the timing of my response). At home, I find myself engaged in a thrilling video game on the Playstation platform, instead of spending quality time with my kids. During my commute, I try to smile at people (minimally, because kindness does seem to freak people out), and minimize the amount of I-have-my-ear-buds-in-and-I-can’t-hear-what-you’re-saying-to-me situations. With my spouse, I have begun to leave my cellphone in another room, out of earshot, while we spend time together watching a television show.

That’s just the way life goes; I’m far from perfect, and have never promised such model behavior. I definitely have room to grow, to learn, to reprogram my own bad habits. The shift from one type of habit to another must be deliberate and repetitive. This is something that I have been working on this entire year, and believe me when I say that it is not an easy task to accomplish.

So if you are a model citizen of this crazy digital world, I suppose that you can disregard this narrative in its entirety, however I believe that the qualified candidates, for such a statement, are few and far between. Let’s just do our own part in life to not be a jerk to one another, to our kids, or to complete strangers. This world is full of magnificent, complex, and magical people; you just need to lift your face from that five-inch mobile device—gently step away from your own private Digital Disneyland—and take a look around. Smile, say hello, start a conversation with another human. That’s all.

Postscript Interactions With a Stranger

At the bus stop he bumps into my shoulder while looking for the next bus, but I take it in stride. He says something to me, looking right in my eyes. I take my headphones out. He apologizes again for bumping me. I say that it’s really not a problem. “I don’t want any trouble”, he says. As if I have trouble in any of my bones to offer. “Just spent a night in the county jail. All I did was ask a cop a question and he threw me on the hood of a car. Took me to jail.” On the spot, I came up with the brilliant and sympathetic response of “that’s messed up”, exhibiting my extensive human to human skills.

He asked if I had any spare change to help him ride the bus home. I, in turn, apologized because I didn’t have any money. Not “none to share”, but literally. I carry no cash. He showed me his quarters. I don’t know the exact fair for bus rides since I use a pass, but he wouldn’t get far with those four chunks of metal.

He boarded the next bus with me and sat across the aisle. He asked the neighboring commuter for a one dollar bill, in exchange for his four quarters. A few stops past Duquesne University, he exited the bus. Legit or not legit, that’s not for me to ask or judge or infer: it’s not my job. I do know heartbreak. And hurt. This man’s eyes screamed pain and sadness. I like encounters like this because it helps me to remember that the entire world doesn’t live in a comfy suburb home with a backyard full of rainbows, fuzzy dogs, and bowls full of free M&Ms. Be grateful for what you have and who you have in your life. Do it now, I’ll wait right here in my seat.

~ September 21, 2016