Turn that thing off!

Posted Jun 08, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jim Rice


What have we learned so far? With more than a year of study and reflection under our belts, the New Media Project research fellows have put together a set of recommendations for using social media. Our blog posts for June 2012 will focus on suggestions for everything from “why use social media?” to “how to know if what you’re doing is working.”

Eric Schmidt, the executive chair of Google, created a minor stir last month when he told Boston University graduates to “turn that thing off.”

“I know it’s going to be hard,” Schmidt said. “Shut it down. Learn where the off button is.” He continued, “Life is not lived in the glow of a monitor. Life is not a series of status updates.”

Schmidt, of course, is no anti-technology Luddite—this was by no means a tech version of “Get off my lawn!”—and his specific call was far from radical: “Take one hour a day and turn that thing off.” But given the source, the message of keeping a healthy perspective on media use—and actually intentionally disconnecting from social media every day—made some people put down their smartphone and listen.

Schmidt maintains that the connectivity made possible by social media is a blessing, not a curse. He’s half right: It can be both. And one thing that can increase the chances of the “curse” side rearing its ugly head is to ignore the importance of boundaries, of keeping a balance in our use of digital tools. That’s one of the recommendations in our “when to be cautious and concerned” section, and it’s followed by a suggested way to deal with problems of overuse: Take a social media sabbath now and then—daily, as Schmidt suggested, or perhaps once a week, once a month, or once a year. The point is to keep our use in perspective and to not let it inappropriately overwhelm the rest of our lives.

Concerns about this question of balance are often focused on the use of digital media by younger people. And it’s true that people who have come of age since the advent of the digital era have a more naturally immersive approach to social media. But the seductive power of electronic media can and does affect people of all ages, and its grip is rapidly increasing.

Case in point: A year ago, I told the story of attending a basketball game with a twenty-something office colleague who, throughout the game, maintained steady focus on his iPhone. The evening sent me off into a reflection on mindfulness, on presence to the moment, and all that. Earlier this week, as I sat watching a back-and-forth, extra-inning baseball game, I could hardly resist pulling out my own smartphone several times an inning—something about pots and kettles comes to mind. In the year I’ve had the phone, it’s become a constant companion; the idea of turning it off for an hour makes me a little twitchy (or maybe it’s just the phantom ringing in my pocket). So to those who responded to Schmidt by mocking the smallness of his suggestion—“Only 60 unplugged minutes a day: that’s nothing!”—I can only say: One step at a time.

As we in the church seek to deepen our understanding of how to use social media well, paying attention to boundaries and not overdoing the gift of connectivity ought to be near the top of the list. And a dose of humility—being careful about judging others for behaviors to which we’re all in varying degrees susceptible,“but for the grace of God”—will be an essential ingredient as we work on discerning the way forward.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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