In a Mass Media class I teach at Grand Rapids Community College, I have my students keep a media-use diary for one week. Not surprisingly, TV and the Internet come out clear winners, averaging about two hours per day each.
Then comes the harder assignment: Stay off the Internet for two days, or at least give it the old college try. again, not surprisingly, almost no one gives it up entirely. but those who cut way back report surprising benefits, such as more time spent reading, talking or just going outside to play.
You might think this discipline is uniquely applicable to young collegians, with their famous addiction to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Not so. according to comScore.com, an information mine on the digital world, people aged 45 to 54 spent the most time online of any age group in 2010 – nearly 40 hours per month.
Even accounting for time spent on the job, that’s a lot of Googling. We’re either amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it, or working ourselves to death, whichever comes first.
What’s worse, kind of, is that age group along with 65-plus were the only demographics to increase their e-mail use last year, according to a new comScore report. Young adults’ e-mailing plunged by more than 30 percent, as they prefer to communicate via Facebook and texting. Not that youth have the corner on that trend: 50 percent of adults use Facebook or other social-networking sites, reports Pew Internet.
Bottom line: We are a wired people, and I’m not just talking Starbucks.
Which is OK by me, kind of. I use Facebook frequently to post interesting news stories and pictures of my cats, as well as catch up on what friends are doing and thinking. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the benefits of social networking, although I do wonder if Facebook CEO mark Zuckerberg’s true aim is world domination.
In a thoughtful commentary for Sojourners, the excellent evangelical writer Cathleen Falsani writes of finding on Facebook a “third place” of community, creating a kind of online church for friends to share sorrows and joys. I too have found Facebook a wonderful source of comfort and community at times.
Still, if one values one’s time, social media have the potential to waste vast quantities of it in pursuit of personal trivia. As Pamela Paul writes in The New York Times, “It’s as if we’re all trapped at a permanent reunion with everyone we ever bumped into at a street fair or waved to mistakenly in the cafeteria.”
Indeed, Internet surfing in general tends to lead one’s attention far afield in time and space. It’s easy to get lost in the infinite shopping mall of cyberspace. Sure, you can find interesting stuff there. but meanwhile, what are you thinking and feeling right now, where you physically are?
Which takes me back to my students’ Internet fast. It’s amazing the things they find out when they stop tapping their smart phones and pay attention to their actual surroundings.
Now of course I am not going to suggest giving up the Internet for Lent. in this day and age, that would be like asking people to give up food. oh wait, that’s what fasting is.
At the very least, Lent offers an opportunity to reflect on how we use our time, and what its quality is. what does it mean to be truly present? how am I feeling at this very moment? how open are my mind and spirit to communicating with the divine?
For me, prayer is not posting a status update to God. It’s slowing my mind down enough to focus on the blessings of this day, the people I am concerned about, and whatever promptings the source of all creation may have in store for me.
Truth be told, I usually don’t reach the state of prayerful awareness that I would like. but I certainly get a lot closer when I am quiet and still, as opposed to searching online for, say, the movie career of Susannah York. I must say I found out interesting things on that search about one of my favorite actresses. but it was merely interesting, not necessary.
What’s necessary is to be aware each day of my own search, for meaning, truth and right living. Tempting as the thought may be, I don’t think I’ll find that on Google.
If I can spend a little less than 40 hours this month online, and a little more with my own inner search engine, well then, that will be time well-spent.
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