Sunday, June 09, 2013

Is Your Cell Phone a False Idol?

I was sitting in church, reflecting on the sermon and how it applied to the week that had passed and the week to come when I noticed the teenager in front of me clutching her cell phone. At various times I noticed she flipped through messages and sent a couple of texts. Then it dawned on me-are our cell phones the “false idols” warned of in the Gospels? A false idol would lead a person to behaviors that were not good for the rest of the society in which they lived. A false idol would encourage these behaviors with rewards like power or fame or wealth. For ages we were led to believe that false idols included golden statues or even money and the things it can buy, but those things are not worshiped necessarily. Try taking a cell phone away from a teenager and be ready for a fight.
                It isn’t that I dislike technology. If my microwave did nothing else but make popcorn quickly and do a baked potato in under ten minutes it would be worth it. But I do not find myself staring at the microwave with adoration. I do not feel the need to upgrade my microwave unless it stops working entirely. I like my television and I even appreciate being able to get photos of my grandson via my computer or phone. For all the good that technology can do it is a good servant, but a bad master.  Some things are acceptable as long as you don’t let them take over your life. What concerns me, especially as cell phones become more common even in middle and elementary schools, is children who have become so entranced by their phones that they have trouble disengaging. This is especially true with  young tweens who have no basis for comparison. I have observed that some of the students with the most academic challenges have the most electronic gear in school. Coincidence?
                I admit that I am what would be called a late adopter in terms of cell phone use. I didn’t get a cell phone until my daughter was heading to college which was almost ten years ago. Now cell phones have become so familiar to me that the one day I headed off to work without it, I felt uneasy. In previous times I was quite capable of going to work, to the store or even out of town without the need to be constantly connected to a cell phone signal. It is as if cell phones have become our technological security blanket, like a lucky charm that will protect us from all evil. Many parents who get cell phones for very young children make the case that it’s for security or safety. Just like pagers back in the 1990’s, cell phones have become a virtual substitute for knowing what your kids are doing.
                Why do we need this constant validation of our worth? It’s similar to the number of friends one has on Facebook or any other social media. In a way it seems to be more like gaming the system to give the appearance of popularity over real popularity itself. While I carry my cell phone in my purse, most days it is turned off when I’m at work. Compare that to my students who are far more engaged in the latest Tweet than in what is going on in the classroom.  Even when asked to put away phones, students will surreptitiously text at will. Students have been known to stream videos, play games and do almost anything other than the work at hand.
That distraction gets down to an even more serious issue. The lure of popularity and the dissolution of civility have led to more access to outlets to bully and denigrate others. There are people who make it their business to relay every negative piece of gossip, who make up lies and who alter photos or take photos with the sole intent being to pick on peers or teachers in the school in 140 characters or less. Students have uploaded photos of tests and assignments. When is the last time you checked your child’s phone or Ipod?
Most parents avoid checking their teens’ phones under the assumption that as long as they don’t run up the bill everything is okay. Actually, there are some very serious adult things going on with teens and cell phones. With internet access students can gamble or even download inappropriate images, videos and games. Cyberbullying and Sexting have become a serious issues even in students as young as middle school. Finding salacious images of a peer or sending such images of one’s self or others could lead to some daunting consequences because if the other student is young enough it could be labeled as child pornography. Such images tend to live forever on the internet. This is also true of images of students partying or engaging in inappropriate behavior. Those kinds of images can haunt a person for life. It can result in loss of scholarships, jobs and relationships. Even when these facts are brought forth, many teens believe their identities are cloaked in secrecy. All it takes is having a friend ID you on Facebook to make everything crystal clear to anyone who wants to see the image. This doesn’t even touch on the far more common occurrence of rampant cheating.
If it seems I am picking on teenagers, it’s because they are the most accessible demographic for such activity. That doesn’t exonerate adults. I have heard cell phones go off in meetings, at weddings and even at funerals. It seems that the veil of civility has been ripped away by the need to be engaged at all times. I have been sitting at dinner at a social occasion and watched as one or another person at the table spent time flipping through texts and emails rather than engaging in actual person to person conversations. I have heard from twenty-somethings that phones have become so invasive that when they go out all phones are placed face down on the table and the first to pick up their phone before leaving has to pay for everyone. Last, but not least, there are the carpool Moms and Dads who swear they drive well while texting. Having been behind you as you swerve all over the road, driving alternately too fast or too slow, I can assure you that I’ve seen drunks on Dallas North Tollway that are driving better than you.
Probably the saddest thing I have seen is when I have taken my grandson to the playground and noticed young mothers gazing fixedly at their phones while their children take risks that could lead to serious harm.  Watching a toddler trying to get Mommy’s attention away from Angry Birds is simply pathetic. How many accidents involving young children could be avoided if the adult in charge would simply put down the phone or disengage from the computer? This points to a sobering reality that many of us are addicted to our phones and that addiction is leading to antisocial, unsavory and even dangerous behaviors. My theory is that unless you are a transplant surgeon or the patient on the transplant list, you probably are not so important that you can’t set down the phone for a real person to person conversation. So once again I ask, is your cell phone a false idol?

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