True story. Last weekend a group of teens gathered in a nicer than average home in the American suburbs to celebrate the fifteenth birthday of a pretty, popular teenage girl. We’ll call her Miranda. Miranda, her mom and her grandma had knocked themselves out for days making tasty food, decorating the pool, deck and house, and devising a hilarious line-up of games and activities. They even had some movie choices to watch before they settled in for the sleepover. Confident she had everything to keep the girls enjoying themselves for the duration, Miranda’s mom greeted each girl at the door with a promise of great fun and a gentle reminder that per the invitations this would be a cell-phone free party. She held out a basket and, like toddlers who have been asked to hand over their pacies or lovies, each one hesitated but finally dropped her phone in. We all know that kids these days are attached to their phones, but what happened next may surprise you…
About an hour into the party, Miranda’s mom decided to count the phones. One was missing. She confronted the girls and asked "whoever" had taken her phone to please replace it. Within 15 minutes, it was returned, and the offender apologized. She reminded them that their moms all had her number in case of emergency. Everyone relaxed and the party resumed.
Following the water balloon relay races the girls came inside to shower and change clothes. No sooner had they shown up for birthday cake than one of them said she "had" to text her mom who was expecting her home any minute. In rapid-fire motion, the majority of the girls said that they, too, had to contact somebody (probably each other, but that's a different story).
Miranda’s mom decided to give them all two minutes to make their calls. You would think she had given them two minutes of free iTunes downloads. They almost hyperventilated. Their fingers were flying! One minute into the calls, Grandma began counting down. At "thirty seconds," the girls began hopping up and down, as if that would somehow help them tweet faster. At "Ten seconds," they began moaning. At “Time” grandma looked around. No “weeping or gnashing of teeth,” but clearly the girls felt “smitten and afflicted.”
The games swept them back into the fun and they capped the night off with a toilet papering adventure at a neighbor's house. But by the time the girls changed into their pajamas, and headed to the basement to watch movies, things began to get ugly. The girls told Miranda it wasn't fair that they didn't have their phones and they couldn't possibly sleep without them, so she had to "somehow convince" her mother that they needed to be returned. Miranda reminded her guests that they knew her family's policy ahead of time and her mother wasn't one to change her mind. That didn't stop the whining.
Seven out of the eight girls were relentless. Finally, at two o’clock in the morning Amanda went to her mom. "Almost in tears" was how Miranda described her friends. Would she pleeeaaassseee give in. Her mom could tell Miranda was upset and headed down to the basement. The girls rushed the basket, snapping up their phones.
Miranda later confided to her mom that it was a big mistake. Every girl was so enthralled with tweeting and texting and instagramming that Miranda couldn't even get them to give her their opinion on which movie to watch. The room could not have been quieter than if a nurse had administered morphine to a recovery room full of amputees.
In the basement bedroom next door, grandma could hear the incoming-message pings all night long. Happily reconnected, they were tweeting their friends again, many of whom were no doubt bedded down across the room. The hardest thing, Miranda reported, had been for them to be cut off from their twitter feeds.
As I listen to my friend’s report I think, Wow, have these girls’ parents never watched Star Trek the Next Generation? Never heard of the Borg? In that universe the Borg is an alien race that abducts and overwhelms other races, injecting them microscopic “nanoprobes” to connect them to the “hive mind” linked by “subspace radio.”
Their bodies begin to manifest machine-like circuitry. Their thoughts become part of the “Collective.” As they approach their next victim they are famous for declaring, “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
Anyone who has watched it knows that the Borg is the enemy. The arch-enemy. Its force is irresistible. Even Captain John Luc Picard succumbed for a while. But maybe we don’t recognize the Borg-like potential of putting a phone in the hands of a child. Is it something we give to our children (and pay for) without also giving them protection?
What happens to a young life that gets “assimilated” this way?
First, there is no personal space for reflection. Speaking as an uber-extrovert, many of us don't know what we think until we begin to process it out loud and put it into words. I get that. But I also know that we need silence to distill who we are and what we want at the very center of our souls. We have to quiet the other voices clamoring for our attention. In order to become our own person we have to think our own thoughts. Even stronger personalities get wobbly when they are constantly pulled into the magnetic force field of so many other voices.
Second, there is little space to, as the the Bible puts it, “seek God’s presence continually (1 Chron 16:11).” The constant barrage of other voices leaves less and less room for God's Spirit to be at home in our lives. Guiding. Prompting. Opening the eyes of our hearts to really see.
As CS Lewis said, ““It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.” It's even harder when you add all the social media and voice message noise to the wild animals and the wind.
Thirdly, there is not much space to give or receive the great gift of presence. When things are stripped down, when we are in great distress we realize that the greatest gift is the presence of one we love. We are hardwired from the factory to be soothed and comforted and lifted up by their touch and their words of empathy. It is the ultimate gift and the loss that tears us up when they are gone. Real face-to-face presence.
The more we dilute that presence with the constant disruptions of social media the thinner our lives will be. We can literally train ourselves to devalue the most important thing in life. And by constantly dialing into the responsive role of short, pithy 140-character conversational exchanges we can stunt our own capacity to find our way into the life of another person with questions and comments that engage the life of the heart.
This is not to say that we or our children or grandchildren shouldn't enjoy Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever social media we may engage. But this news from the front struck me as a powerful cautionary tale.
Miranda and her siblings have been raised with healthy boundaries. Even at age 15 they can see the benefits of their parents protection. And thank them for it.
Would love your responses…do you or your kids or grandkids struggle with this? How can we live more richly with social media?