Face Time

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 8/3/2022

Face Time

The thrill of a new school year is upon us! And with it, there is a nervous yet appealing angst, regardless of how many times you’ve experienced it. It is an odd juxtaposition to be both anxious and elated simultaneously. Yet it is a predictable response to breaking the summer routine, anticipating the challenging work ahead, and reuniting with our school community. In addition to the social aspects of a new school year, students and staff return with challenging goals in mind. One goal we should all consider this year is increasing our awareness of how we use our phones, electronic devices, and social media — I call this awareness: DIGITAL HYGIENE.

We know that hygiene refers to practices and daily habits conducive to maintaining good health, like washing hands, bathing, and brushing teeth. So, what does Digital Hygiene mean?

A quick Google search defines Digital Hygiene as “… regularly updating and cleaning electronic devices, using passwords that follow security protocols, optimizing settings, and the organization of the stored files.” However, that is not what I had in mind. So, allow me to define Digital Hygiene on my own terms.  

It is hard not to notice our ever-increasing dependence and attraction to our electronic devices. Few aspects of professional and personal life are yet to be integrated into our phones and devices. They have become essential. We do our banking and shopping and even track our heart rate and the number of steps we’ve taken throughout the day. We communicate with friends and family in a variety of ways, meet new acquaintances, join groups with similar interests, play captivating games, plan trips near and far, and use the navigation to check traffic and arrival times even when we know the route. Every day there seems to be a new app or platform that brings us more utility and entertainment. It’s quite addictive. 

Digital Hygiene centers around awareness of this growing dependence with a mindfulness of how and when we utilize our technology, and more importantly how it affects our overall health. Surely there must be some practices and habits of technology use conducive to maintaining good health, but it is not as straightforward as washing your hands.

There was a time when we didn’t know about harmful bacteria and that washing our hands and covering our coughs, would promote good health. Throughout history, awareness of things that do harm has led to countermeasures. We’ve learned to co-exist with natural things we can’t control, like bacteria, the sun’s harmful rays, and heavy metals. And sometimes we learn the hard way that our ingenious creations bring unforeseen consequences such as asbestos, lead paint, Thalidomide, Round-Up, and cigarettes, just to name a few. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Mobile devices and social media are just the latest additions to humanity’s list of creations that may prove to have some undesirable consequences down the road. Some would opine that they already have. Technology has changed our lives for the better and the worse. I am not writing to take sides, in fact, I believe that debate is futile for the simple fact that technology will continue to advance as sure as the sun rises. Devices will become more sophisticated and include more must-have features, apps, and human-to-human connectivity advancements. NeuraLink chips for human brains are already in development, which will allow humans to seamlessly integrate their minds with devices via Bluetooth. Google’s artificial intelligence, LaMDA, has already developed to the point where it is arguably sentient. In the not-too-distant future, we will be able to choose the degree to which we transform ourselves into cyborgs. None of this is science fiction; it is yesterday’s news. In case you are thinking that limiting screen time is the solution, screen time will become an outdated term in the future as humans progressively merge one-to-one with technology.

The relevant topic to consider today is how much or little you want the electronic world to intersect with your life. As parents and educators, a far more challenging issue is making that decision for the children in our care. It is a bit of a conundrum to prepare our youngsters for life in the future, encourage them to learn the latest technology so that they may be competitive in life, yet intentionally limit their use of it for the health of their minds and bodies. Clearly, we need thoughtful balance.

Everyone would benefit from a Digital Hygiene regimen that suits them, lest they run the risk of becoming a digital zombie. Individuals must determine a personal balance between immersing in technological utility versus experiencing life the old-fashioned way, in person. It is a question about an individual’s relationship with the virtual world and how far they want to take it. 

There is nothing wrong with complete immersion in the virtual world, but it is not a life I want for myself or those in my care. The point is that when dealing with irresistible and addicting technology, it is easy to see how that can become detrimental to one’s psychological and physical health. And, like any addiction, one may not be aware that they have crossed a line until they realize they are negatively effecting others or try to quit.

A word of caution to the adults: Be aware of generational or nostalgic bias. It is a form of arrogance to reminisce favorably about your earlier days and assume that is what’s best for kids today. I am fond of my memories of growing up without cell phones. One of my favorite idioms is, “When the phones were tied by a wire, humans were free.” But I don’t think I would have liked growing up in my grandparents’ era with no television. Likewise, I don’t think kids today would look favorably on the prospect of growing up without Snapchat or Twitter. It’s all relative. Today’s youngsters will experience a world with technology beyond our wildest dreams (and nightmares). They will need the skills and proficiency to navigate a high-tech world, and we need to be mindful of that when considering digital abstinence as a consequence when they get in trouble.

So, as we embark on this new school year, let’s do so with eyes and minds wide open. As we learn and grow with new technologies, we must also make intentional efforts to engage with one another and develop interpersonal skills. We need to recognize when we’ve had enough digital time and make time for one another in engaging activities in person. We should incorporate regular activities free from technologies to ensure that everything technology can’t enhance, from fine motor skills to nature walks, doesn’t languish. With some practice, Digital Hygiene will be as routine and easy as washing your hands.