The Lure of Social Media

Have you noticed in restaurants, when a family is having lunch or dinner, that children from two or three years to teenagers are focused on the mobile device in their hand? Parents are free to order, eat and have adult conversations. Children come up for air when their food arrives, then return to their treasured hand- held companion. Younger children are usually playing games or watching cartoons; teenagers are in close touch with their friends. The phenomenon is also evident on sidewalks everywhere and in buses, subways, trains, planes and waiting rooms where adults are engrossed in the same hand-held mobile device.

Do you possess an iPhone or does your child have one? IPhones, costing hundreds of dollars, have the multiple appeal of taking and sending pictures as well as communicating with friends, relatives and business prospects on social media sites: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Flicker, Tumbir, Kik, Snapchat, Instagram, Ask.fm and Vine. Teenagers and adults play video games with friends in marathon sessions. Grandparents receive photos taken at their grandchildren’s school plays. Chefs trade recipes. And not to be overlooked —the Arab Spring enveloped the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 – 2012 stoked by instant viral communication among millions of men and women on Facebook. Social media knows no traditional boundaries between countries or continents for dramatic pictures and organizational messages.

The Internet, of course, is the global system of interconnected computer networks that grew through the l980’s and l990’s to link private, public, academic, business and government networks by an array of electronic, wireless and optical technologies. As of June 2012, more than 2.4 billion people — over one third of the world’s human population– have used the Internet, about 100 times more people than were using it in l995. E-mail has become the basic communication network for men, women and children worldwide. Letter writing with pen, stationery and postage is now called ‘snail mail’. Instant chats on e-mail have brought new immediacy and intimacy between correspondents near and far.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he initiated a $7 billion program to expand access to the Internet, mainly through grants to build wired and wireless systems in neglected areas of the country. At present the Internet reaches nearly 98 percent of American homes that have access to high-speed broadband service. However, it is estimated that 60 million people do not have or use computers and are not connected to the Internet. Thus, 20 percent of American adults do not use the Internet at home, work or school. They are shut off from jobs, government services, health care and education opportunities.

Three of the largest social networks are Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter. Facebook was founded in February 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg with his roommates while at Harvard, initially limited to certain colleges in the Boston area. It expanded rapidly to other universities and beyond –opening to anyone over 13 years old who wished to register using the site. After registering, users may create a personal profile and exchange messages with other users. By September, 2012, Facebook had over one billion active users across the world. It should be noted according to a Consumer Reports survey in May, 2011, that there were 7.5 million children under 13 years with accounts and 5 million under ten in violation of Facebook’s terms.
Linked in is a social networking website for people in professional occupations. Officially launched on May 5, 2003, it has become an essential part of the business world for employers, employees and those seeking new positions. As of June, 2013, Linked in reported more than 225 million users in more than 20 countries and territories. The site is available in 20 languages.

Twitter is an online social networking service and microblogging service as well. Users on Twitter send and read text-based messages on the Internet up to 140 characters, known as “tweets”. The new system and alphabet of characters were created in March 2006 by Jack Dorsey, based in San Francisco. Twitter was an instant hit worldwide and brought messages within the political, entertainment and social world on all current subjects. There were 500 million users registered as of 2012, sending out over 340 million tweets daily and 1.6 billion search queries per day. Since 2006, Twitter had become one of the ten most visited websites on the Internet. Registered users can post tweets through a range of apps (applications) for mobile devices. Unregistered users can read tweets. Television commentators cite tweets and the name of the sender — often a famous personality — for instant feedback on news events of the day.

Parents, educators and psychologists have been growing concerned about the amount of time and attention children and teenagers are devoting to the social media in all its seductive forms. High school students in past decades often dialed their best friends on the telephone as soon as they came home to review the gossip of the halls and the cafeteria. Now, children of all ages disappear into their rooms to chat on the Internet or exchange e-mails. After dinner, homework has competition from finding the latest tweets on Twitter. Three recent books focus on this new dimension in American life: “ The App Generation“, “The Big Disconnect” and “The Distraction Addiction”.

“The App Generation – How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World” is by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. Yale University Press. 256 pages. He is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and she is an assistant professor at the University of Washington. They present a balanced view of the an-app driven life with emphasis on how the young today form their identity, relationships, values and ideas heavily influenced by social media. “The Big Disconnect – Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age“ is by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker. Harper. 374 pages. Ms. Steiner-Adair, the primary author, is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. The book is based on thousands of interviews and emphasizes the need to ration children’s computer time. She addresses the challenge of how to keep children away from their laptops, phones and tablets. She also describes a generation of parents who are “unavailable, disconnected or narcissistic”, on e-mail, scanning for the next text or tweet.

“The Distraction Addiction – Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul”. By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Little Brown & Company. Illustrated. 290 pages. Mr. Pang is a futurist and visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford Universities. He brings a Zen approach to his subject. The first seven chapters are titled: Breathe, Simplify, Deprogram, Experiment, Refocus and Rest. He suggests that it is possible to take part in “tweeting mindfully”, which means knowing your intentions and asking yourself if you’re on line for the right reasons. The three new books present different and provocative points of view for parents, educators and anyone interested in the far-reaching effects of social media on our lives.
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