The Loss of Contemplation in a Networked Life

I can vividly recall lying in my bed at night, during middle school, thinking through the events of the day, scrolling through images and pieces of conversations. I recall enjoying this time alone, in the dark. I recall thinking, contemplating, remembering up until the point I drifted off into sleep. There was something deeply relaxing and fulfilling about this private time. It was in the quiet of the night that I could consider ideas, question feelings, let loose fantasies in complete privacy. I had the opportunity to work out and work through embarrassing encounters with friends, confusion about my feelings, wonder about a possible romantic partner, or fantasize about playing alongside Jerry West, wearing Laker purple and gold.

For many 21st century teens, the quiet of lying in bed is interrupted by the sound of a text coming through their smart phone or the sound of an instant message arriving on their laptop or desktop. Today's youth are “networked “at all times of the day and night. Many teens experience fear, even panic, if they are separated from their web of contacts/friends within their smart phone, Facebook page, or e-mail list.

The constant opportunity for communication seems to have the unfortunate consequence of decreasing opportunities to be alone and, in the experience of being alone, the expansion of self-awareness. The process of being in a contemplative state, a focused state of personal reflection about one's identity, is diminished by always being tethered electronically to one's peer group (and or family).

It is the expectation of today's youth (and adults, for that matter) they will be able to reach peers twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The expectation of connection seems to have created an aversion to being alone, simply because being alone is so unfamiliar. Rather than see periods of quiet as opportunities for recharging, contemplation and reflection, quiet is experienced as alien and, because it is alien, as uncertain and frightening.

In William Deresiewicz’s essay “The End of Solitude,” he writes: “So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone.”  He goes on to say: “Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can't imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology -- or, to be fair, our use of technology -- seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others.”

The implication of this essay is the more teens try to keep aloneness at a distance, the less they will be able to deal with being alone and the more terrifying aloneness will become. Because of this fear the “I generation” may lose the ability to be still or idle and, therefore, the capacity for solitude. And if solitude is gone, what exactly does this loss involve? What is at stake? Well, the ability for introspection, the capacity to examine the self, to discover hidden or nascent parts of the self. Deresiewicz writes: “But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.”

As Sherry Turkle points out in her book Alone Together, in addition to the fear of being alone and the loss of the opportunity for contemplation, when today's youth experience an uncomfortable feeling, they can fire off multiple texts immediately to gain support and validation. According to Turkle, the teen of today has little time or patience to sift or sort through their feelings. As feelings emerge, their first response is to reach out and share the feeling, achieving clarification and validation through a peers’ “texted” response. Turkle says one can make the case that for today's youth a feeling isn't truly “real” until it is communicated – which means texted or posted.

Another important dimension of today's youth is the messages that are sent via text or Facebook, must be brief and tailored for the consumption of an audience --  not for one's private consumption or process of reflection. Through this type of writing, it seems fair to suggest the self is reduced and diminished. Whenever teens begin to write, they “size up” their thoughts in terms length of “text” or “post” and public perception. They do not have the luxury of time to first rehearse what they want to say, to investigate their own private ideas and feelings, precisely because technology requires immediate, synchronous, communication.

The “always on” and constantly networked youth has little need or capacity to contemplate their lives because they are never truly alone. And, when they do express themselves, they are focused on tailoring and revising their thoughts with an audience in mind. The reality is, this type of communication decreases and, perhaps erodes, the circuitry in the brain responsible for self-reflection and contemplation.

It has been noted by Gary Small, M.D., that the high-tech revolution places teens in what he calls a “state of continuous partial attention.” This means teens are constantly keeping tabs on multiple activities without fully focusing on any one subject/activity/person at a time. Small says continuous partial attention ultimately places teens’ brains in a heightened state of stress, precisely because they do not have the time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions. They exist in an “alert state,” always waiting for a new contact or new information to come in through whatever technological device they are using.

Small argues the teenager’s brain was not made to maintain this kind of connection for extended periods. He warns that after endless hours of digital connectivity, the brain begins to strain. In this stressed state, the brain secretes cortisol and adrenaline, which can eventually lead to impaired cognition and altered mood, such as depression. Small also suggests a much more disturbing possibility: the fully networked brain may be permanently rewired, thus ending the capacity for contemplation, reflection, solitary moments.

As I write this blog, I am conscious of the obvious nostalgia, perhaps even romanticizing, a time long gone by. Perhaps the networked teen will experience an evolution in thinking and communication, rather than a regression or loss. Perhaps my concern for the loss of time for quiet contemplation minimizes the extraordinary opportunities for connection afforded through the technological modes of communication. Perhaps so.

But, I doubt it. One of the most important tasks of adolescents and young adulthood is the development of self-awareness. Self-awareness evolves through quiet moments of contemplation. Self-awareness grows through confusion and uncertainty about one's own thoughts, ideas, values, and feelings. If we can “text” a feeling before we are clear about what feeling we are having, we are deprived of the opportunity to deeply experience feelings, to turn them inside out, to connect our feelings and life choices.

So, what is the solution, if the networked teen is being deprived of the opportunity to develop self-awareness? Should parents step in and require teens to turn off their phones and computers? Should parents require teens to spend time journaling, reading, drawing, or having face-to-face conversations? Assuming parents did take on this responsibility, this mission to save the capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness, would any teen listen? Probably not.

Herein lies a fundamental decision in parenting today's “networked” youth: should the opportunity for deep reflection and contemplation be a requirement of family life? And, if so, what would this mean? What would it look like?

The 21st century, technologically savvy and connected teen, needs stewardship and guidance from his/her parent. Parents need to set firm and compassionate limits on access to technology. Reading, drawing, journaling, travel, exercise, outings, and face-to-face communication need to be priorities for the family.

Then the questions arises:  is today's “networked” parent, who is very likely as engaged and as distracted by technology as their teen, truly interested in preserving contemplation, reflection, self-awareness, and above all moments of solitude and quiet?

Sadly, it may very well be that the power of multiple technological connections through multiple types of media have overwhelmed parental priorities, and thus parents do not have the time, the patience, the endurance, to fight the good fight, to hold onto the value of contemplation, self-reflection, and above all, self-knowledge.

Perhaps the best course of action is for parents to unplug from their network life a day or two a week and, in so doing, invite their children into experiences of a contemplative, interconnected, quiet life.

Christopher Mulligan LCSW