“Alright Sweetheart, I think it’s time to put your phone away.”
“Sweetheart please. Just turn it off.”
“Sweetheart, please. Phone away.”
“SWEET HEART! PUT THE PHONE DOWN!”
“Dad. Why are you shouting?”
Before I can even open my mouth to state the obvious, my daughter loses all interest in the answer and returns to her screen. She knows exactly how the world works: if a question doesn’t get answered instantly, move on, there’s always something new to look at, another post, another distraction.
“I raised my voice,” I say to the side of her face, as calmly as my gritted teeth will allow “because I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed because we’re sitting in Paris, in the Louvre in front of one of the most beautiful, mysterious, and iconic paintings in the world and…”
“Yeah,” she interrupts, “OK, I’ve seen it.”
“And I thought you might like to, for just a moment, put your phone down and spend a little time in awe.”
She swipes at her screen. “Or what?”
I try to empathise, I try to remember being sixteen. I try to convince myself that this is just a different time and I am simply experiencing the same frustration that my parents felt watching me go out with my hair dyed like a badger.
Memes, videos, photos, updates, jokes, messages, all demand her attention and FOMO won’t let her look up. The remarkable thing is that she’s convinced she’s having fun but the odd smirk or rare LOL doesn’t seem to hide the fact that it all looks remarkably like work. She’s data processing, trying to suck the entire world, or how it’s presented online, into her head. But she’s got a lot of information to get through. Google calculates, in one of those statistics that leave you reeling with “Wait! How the fuck can they even calculate that?”, that we have created more information in the past five years than all the rest of human history. So much so, they seem to have had to make up a new word to enumerate our stored data. Three hundred exabytes of information, that’s 300,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes and counting. Written on 3×5 index cards, just your personal share of it would wrap around the earth twice.
But is Social Media just the Rock’n’Roll of my daughter’s generation? A harmless obsession that frustrates the previous one and seems anachronistic to the next. Or is something more sinister really going on?
A survey of 78,000 English school children last month seemed to think so. Kids who spend hours on social media, it discovered, are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, smoke, drink, and have unhealthy eating habits. Half of the ten to fifteen year olds who admitted to being online for more than three hours a day said that they felt pretty shitty about themselves, in comparison to just a third of children who spent less than an hour popping memes.
In the Times Education Supplement, David Regis, from the Schools and Students Health Education Unit who conducted the survey, said, “Youngsters are under pressure to perform and be visible online. So it may be that social media is making them feel bad.
“But it may be that, when you’re feeling bad, you go online and talk to your friends and try to feel better about yourself.”
Considering almost all social media is either judgement or encouraging judgement, it’s unsurprising that the survey also revealed this “always online” generation has an inflated fear of bullying. More than 30 percent of girls, and 23 percent of boys, in Year 6 and Year 8 said their fear of being bullied has meant they had, at times, been afraid to turn up to school.
However, one of the main worries for all fourteen and fifteen year olds was their appearance.
Justifying why independent schools are increasing “the funding for professionals, counsellors, and listeners to come into the schools”, Chris King, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) says, “The typical individual who is presenting himself at the moment is a child who is anxious that they appear interesting and popular in social media.”
So are our kids really on the cusp of a mental health crisis? Of course it could be that we are, now, simply more sensitive to mental health issues. But if I don’t swipe the damn phone out of my daughter’s hand am I standing by and allowing her to be damaged? If I pay for her phone bill am I as good as funding her mental health decay? Could social media be child abuse?
I stare at the painting. It’s a voice from a dirtier, poorer, simpler time, a totally different world to mine, but still just audible if you take the time.
And that’s it. Look around the gallery: for as long as there have been paintings on walls, we’ve been ‘swiping’ right, or left, stopping occasionally, enjoying, moving on. Tinder, just slower.
So what if what we’re actually witnessing is evolution in action? Our children’s brains rewiring. As they grow they’ll evaluate information differently, faster. Maybe, right now, they’re building a brave new world, one that gets rid of bullies and encourages self-esteem (which, let’s face it, is probably the same thing).
So when I look at my daughter, hunched over her phone, I’m not sad because of her limited horizons and, quite frankly, awful posture, I’m uncomfortable because I’m staring at the end of my world. And it’s been such a wonderful world, in all its sensation and sheer physicality: trees swaying in the breeze with leaves fizzing in the the wind; the grain of the oar as it rolls and pulls at the hand; the sweet salty smell of the sea or the un-noise-cancelled birds and traffic orchestrating this unique city soundscape. All gone in the digital world.
I wish I could let her in on this vanishing world. I wish I had a happy ending for this story. I wish there was something I said that made her put down the phone and discover that unique, ancient, analogue image in front of us. But apart from a few audible sighs from me, and a number of eyerolls from her, we sat in our separate worlds, building one, mourning another.