Abundance, Digital Distress and Time
Originally presented at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, March 23, 2014
”I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy” – Thích Nhat Hanh
”We have a largely materialistic lifestyle characterized by a materialistic culture. However, this only provides us with temporary, sensory satisfaction, whereas long-term satisfaction is based not on the senses but on the mind. That’s where real tranquility is to be found” – The Dalai Lama.
This apple is a bit of a modern miracle. Partly because it’s March. A fresh apple in March! And shelves full of them in every grocery store.
How many of us have grown apples? How many of us have stored apples over the winter? Like in a cellar or basement? This perfect apple didn’t come from a cellar, but from a storage facility where humidity, temperature and oxygen levels are mechanically controlled and monitored by computers. This apple is an example of modern abundance. Apples aren’t in season. Apple season is six months away. But we can buy almost anything in many places, almost anytime. Anyone who has experienced seasonal shortage might realize modern abundance is pretty remarkable. But to those of us who have lived in relative comfort in modern times, this abundant availability of food and other goods is just normal.
Before modern refrigeration and storage were widely available, only the best apples were selected and stacked in baskets and crates, then kept cool in cellars, underground pits and caves. Although I grew up in modern times, when I was a kid we had a cellar dug into the bank near the stream that ran through our property. It was like a small basement. In October, we would look at the big box of apples and the dozens of jars of fruit, vegetables and salmon, and feel a deeply pleasing sense of abundance. In mid-winter, getting home from school, we would run down to the cellar where it was warmer than the freezing outside air and reach into the box and pull out a perfect crisp, cool, sweet apple. In late January, they were getting a little soft, and by March, they were gone. No apples left in the cellar. The garden was still muddy and bare from winter, except for a few stems of kale and chard and a few buried carrots. The thimbleberry and blackberry bushes by the creek were still months from bearing fruit, and fishing for steelhead and winter chinook was an expensive and chancy sport rather than a realistic source of food. We stacked empty jars on the cellar shelves after each meal.
Today, there are plenty of apples on grocery store shelves. In fact we all know we can get just about any fruit, vegetable or food product just about any time, a short drive or walk from home. We can buy an unbelievable range of toys, gifts, housewares, clothing, appliances, tools, electronics, and entertainment. Compared to older times, when the beginning of spring was when we humans deliberately, and out of necessity, consumed less, now every new season marks a new shopping cycle.
Long before I or anyone I know was around, the Equinox marked a time of hope for life to re-emerge after the dark, cold winter. A time to hope for renewal and a fresh new growing season to start. A time to reassure ourselves that food would again be abundant, and that we would again celebrate and feast together. We use the symbols of eggs, bunnies and flowers to remind ourselves of the fertile abundance the renewed season will bring. And we remind ourselves that the forces of good and of life are strong, and that goodness and light return even after a dark winter. In the old days, things were rough in the early spring. People had been hungry for awhile, some got sick. At this time of year, we really needed flashes of hope and light: little shoots of green, a bit of solemn confidence and some sweet surprises and big smiles from the grown-ups. And a nice party for everyone, young and old. These are all about raising spirits.
Today we have abundance beyond measure. More than we need, more than we can readily comprehend. But it seems that we are still hungry. With all this abundance of things, what do we do? I can see that a lot of us spend time with each other and do quite a lot of good work. Many of us have grown up working a lot, doing the things we needed to do to bring abundance to our families and to this church as well. But today, a lot of us are experiencing a different kind of abundance: this incredible avalanche of material goods, and of information and technology and entertainment that have become part of normal life for so many of us.
And many of us are still hungry for Something. There’s this feeling of need. That desire for Something in the old days was what motivated us to go outside, or to put on a show, or to explore the world. How many of us remember that feeling of wanting to have something to do and someone saying “Go play outside.” And you did. You’d read all the books, played with all your toys, there was nothing on TV or you didn’t have a TV, or you were over your quota and anyway not allowed to waste a day sitting around inside. So you connected with friends and did something. When I was twelve years old, during the March break, my brother and I found some wood and built a tree house, more of a tree platform, ten feet off the ground and eight feet square. It had beams and floor joists. We didn’t officially know how to build a floor, but we did it. Our parents had no idea what we were doing out there in the forest. When it was built, we called them outside to see what we had done. We ran ahead, climbed up and hid there, so that when they walked down the path through the forest they didn’t know to look up until we popped our heads over the edge and yelled with unforgettable pride, so they could see what we had done. We loved our tree fort, but the look on their faces, their amazement. That was gold! Those were the old days.
Today, we—grown-ups—have built an abundant universe of technologies to reach for when we feel the need to do something: the internet, smart phones, video games, World of Warcraft, Facebook, Pinterest, texting. Now I know that you and I haven’t designed and built these personally. But from the perspective of a young person, we adults approve these technologies implicitly. In fact, while many of us grew up without networked digital communications and entertainment, we now accept them as normal. But they are not. They are new, and they may not be as great as the technology zealots, marketing specialists and the human-computer designers would like us to believe.
Let’s take a few seconds to remember what normal was like fifteen years ago. It’s not easy to remember, because we humans are adaptable. We get used to the new normal pretty quickly. The new normal is that 30 percent of North American households have no limits on screen time for children and teens. The new normal is that the average North American teen has a screen in her face for seven and a half hours a day every day. The new normal is that we don’t seem to have the time to help our kids with their problems. And the new normal is that we adults need to go and “work” on the computer some more. Children and youth are following our lead: looking at their phones, computers, televisions, and game consoles, following us into the habit. Into digital default; and when it gets cut off, into digital distress.
There is a growing, recent body of research into this new normal, asking to what extent the new normal might be harming children’s chances in life. We know that brain development during childhood and youth is rapid and complex. We are learning that too much time on screen harms learning, thinking, and moral development. The biggest concern is that we don’t know to what extent we are risking children’s capacity for future learning and development. Overuse of technology may cause changes in the structure of the brain that limit later learning and development in areas like empathy and motivation. As a result of this research. the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children “aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to [screen time], 3-5 year-olds should be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 year-olds restricted to 2 hours per day.” The Kaiser Foundation (2010) and Active Healthy Kids Canada (2012) found that the new normal is that kids are on screen for four to five times the time limits in these guidelines for children and youth. It’s kind of an experiment, really. We are responsible for a massive experiment in which our young people are the underage research subjects. Are we giving informed consent? What are we risking in this experiment?
A friend reminded me that we have done massive social experiments with our young people before—widespread literacy is relatively new—and these experiments had both benefits and costs. I don’t think this is the same experiment. We need to consider “What costs are we incurring with this present experiment?” And “What exactly is the experiment?” Just to make this a little more real, imagine you are handed a consent form asking you to sign your permission for your nine-year-old to see seven hours of TV, video, video games, smart phone apps political messaging and advertising every day for an indefinite period of time. There’d be a warning on the form: Risks may include learning and social difficulties; or Combined with an average North American diet, sedentary behaviour may cause health problems; and There may be increased chances of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, depression and the controversial diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder. Would you sign the permission form and send a child into this experiment?
I will note that some studies have been able to measure increased abilities in video gamers on certain skill tests, but it turns out these tests are measuring what children learned in the video games, rather than their skills in real life. There is plenty of research that identifies problems, and there are quite a number of health care providers in several fields who are fully occupied with treating children with problems associated with excessive screen time. Something to keep in mind if this turns into a debate: it’s easy to point to kids who have done OK, despite overuse if technology: family involvement, stable homes, enriched environments, good diet, friends, good schools. These can all counter the progress of digital addiction. But does anyone really claim that seven and a half hours a day of screen time is good for children? No, not really.
Children and youth are much more likely to be healthy and smart, good and happy if they spend less time online and more time in the real world. But that is not the trend right now. The trend is that those of you who vaguely oppose all this digital culture might sheepishly deprecate yourselves as Luddites, those famous opponents of automation technology from the early industrial revolution. And you expect to get brushed aside. But maybe you’re just right. Maybe your instincts are right. Maybe you’re countering a massive cultural trend that is going in an unhealthy direction and you’re not sure how to approach your son or daughter or friend when she or he doesn’t want to turn off the video or put the phone down for a few minutes.
And what about sleeping? Sleep is important to learning, development, and mental and physical health. When it comes to taking a break, getting rest and unwinding and recharging and processing our experiences through sleep, we are in a dark time indeed. “Night time. It’s a good time to sleep,” I tell my son. But many children are awake into the night. A Boston College study found that 75% of nine and ten year-old children are sleep-deprived, and most of them are allowed screens in their bedrooms, unsupervised. When all these patterns combine, are we reducing children’s chances for a healthy, happy life? We see children being fed a digital diet that leaves them hungry. And chances are they will be fed medication rather than a nourishing diet of real life, and time with family, friends, and nature.
It is a dark time. But the desire to stay online, to keep watching the next episode, to play up to another level, is real and strong and learned. And it can be unlearned, in time. It’s time to re-emerge from this digital darkness, and to reclaim our time, and to help our children reclaim their young lives. Equinox and the Ostara rituals have been around for a long time, to recall the energy of life in the time of rebirth of plants and animals and good spirits. In our wish, this year, for abundance, what do we really need? We’re short of life’s most precious gift: Time. But because of the abundance of connections we have around us—the friends, families, the people sitting next to you in this community of like-minded seekers—we have the wealth we need to create more time.
When I made the above presentation in March 2014, I offered each member of the audience a coupon. For time. Sometime. I suggested that, while the daffodils were still up, they find someone to give that coupon to. It’s good for an hour of their time – an hour of undivided, unplugged presence. Doing something or doing very little, it’s up to them. But in the giving of that time (which is really just a seed), we create an hour of the kind of time we all need more of. And in those hours our friendships grow, and in the unplugged time, in the several hundred hours among us, away from tweets and texts, in the real world, together, our children may blossom and thrive again.