A spectacular waterfall exposed me to how my smartphone habits are getting passed to my kids.
The North Shore runs along the north half of Minnesota, along Lake Superior. From Duluth to the Canadian border, 150 miles of shoreline feature giant cliffs, massive rock formations, and huge square boulders thickened by high concentrations of iron. The scene is weighty and chaotic — a crime scene of brawling monsters who spun boulders across the landscape like dice.
The shoreline cliffs are so tall, and the lake itself is so large, the water stretches out into the far horizon like endless ocean. High upon a hill, this was our view from a cabin where we ended last summer together as a family.
The woods to the west, the slope of the land to the water, and the tall cliffs produce a series of beautiful waterfalls cut into the rock. Along those 150 miles you can visit 130 documented waterfalls. One waterfall not on that list included a gem hidden about 300 yards down the hill from our cabin, a gorgeous, thundering, 25-foot tall waterfall, a tight cascade of water that drops into a big bowl pond, maybe 80-feet across.
Down in the pond, dark basalt walls horseshoe under the waterfall and around the sides, and the pool opens up to a little river on the other side. The plunge pool is made of dark stone carved out by water and ice over thousands of years. The water itself is tinged rustic red, but it’s so deep the pond is ink black.
Over the pond, on one side of the shore, a gnarled tree had grown out of the boulders. And from one of its thick old branches hung a rope swing. Standing on a boulder, you could swing over and into the pond. We spent the day at this secluded pond at the base of the rushing waterfall.
What’s the Point?
Here is the scene that I remember most: The sun is out, it’s getting warmer, and our 15-year-old son explores the place more fully and he returns with enough mustered-up courage to ask if he can jump off the 25-foot waterfall.
My wife and I look at each other, look at the falls, look at the rock face that bulges out, and say, “No way. No, you cannot. You’ll break your neck!”
To be fair, at this point we don’t know what, if any, boulders are under the surface of the water.
So, he went off and found little footholds in the horseshoe walls and started jumping in at five or ten feet up.
At the heat of high noon, three guys appeared out of nowhere at the top of the 25-foot falls — road workers scuffed with black asphalt. They stripped to shorts, and the first one stepped up to the edge of the waterfall, launched himself off the cliff, and lunged feet first, nose plugged, into the black pool below, just as naturally as if he’d been doing this for years (which he probably has). A second guy followed. By that time, the first guy had climbed back up and on to the waterfall edge to jump in again. Cooled off, re-dressed, they soon left.
All the momentum (and now the evidence) swinging firmly in his favor, our 15-year-old son returned to repeat his plea, and our case against it seemed to be gone.
“Okay, so you want to jump,” I said. “I’ll let you jump off the 25-foot waterfall under one condition. We are not going to video record the jump. Not on your phone. Not on my phone. Not on mom’s phone. But you can jump.”
And you can imagine what happened next.
He threw his arms up in the air and said with exasperation, “Well then, what’s the point?!”
Was I simply emotionally torturing him? Maybe. It was certainly an object lesson I could not pass up.
Once upon a time in the life of social media, we could share things we had already accomplished. You’d be at home at your computer and you’d remember: “Oh yeah, I was at this party and I have some pictures on my digital camera, so now a week later I’m going to share a picture on Facebook.” Those days are gone. Now, at the party we are thinking of what we can shoot and share immediately to let other people see and know what we’re doing at that moment.
So much of social media turns our lives into a stage. We set the scene. We frame the camera. The people around us become actors and actresses. We become the director and the producer — even the starring actor if we want to.
Shareable moments become little stage-plays.
Now, in itself, our sharing is not inherently wrong. But we often do it without thinking about it. It’s instinctive. And that’s the danger — the not thinking about it.
Point being made — yes, we let our son jump off the 25-foot waterfall. Yes, he lived. Yes, his mother survived. Yes, we recorded it. But we made an agreement that he could share it online with his friends only after we returned home a few days later. And he had to voluntarily give up his phone for the last two days of the trip, which was the unplugging we wanted him to enjoy.
I laugh at the story, but the sad reality is that my son is living out a pattern that I unconsciously instilled in him. For the last ten years, he has been an actor in front of my iPhone.
It’s called “sharenting” — a term for parents who have shared lots of things about their children online over the years. We posted their birth photos, and shared their baby pictures, and their first steps, and their first smiles, first words, first this, first that — they’ve all been documented and shared on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.
In other words: The phenomenon of teen selfies is the product of sharenting. We are a generation of parents who raised our children with a constant camera in their faces, and now a decade later we’re just beginning to see the impact of our habits on the next generation. And the next generation is passing along certain habits unknowingly to the generation after them.
For our improvement, or to our demise, we are fundamentally creatures of imitation, copying the habits and behaviors we see in those around us (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7–9; Hebrews 6:12; 13:7; 1 Peter 1:14; 2:21; 3 John 11).
All our selfies, sharenting, and digital impulses are the product of a revolutionary technological marriage:
The merging of these three techno-wonders has fundamentally shaped our self-perception, our self-projection, and everything between.
To show you how the power of a platform can condition our habits, I’ll focus on Instagram, the popular photo and video-sharing app launched six years ago.
Instagram now boasts 700 million monthly active users, up 40% in one year’s time. Today alone, 95 million new images will be uploaded to the platform. If Facebook has become a minefield of explosive debates, and if Twitter has become home to life-sucking trolls, Instagram has emerged as a respite from what makes social media most ugly. The platform is largely peaceful and friendly — a more happy haven.
And Instagram is changing us.
Instagram is changing concert design.
Es Devlin, a 45-year-old designer in the U.K., maybe best known for designing Beyoncé’s concert stages, said: “If you look at most concerts before 2003, the photos were taken by professional photographers near the front and you’ll see a big, godlike image of the pop star and a load of lights behind them. That’s how the imagery was recorded, and that’s how most people who didn’t go would perceive the show.”
“Cut to cameras on phones. Suddenly that event [the pop concert] is being recorded from every angle, therefore my work is suddenly being seen from every angle and understood in a different way. So it’s a big shift,” she says. “The artists I’m working with are bombarded with images of themselves and their shows. They are aware that many people will perceive their shows through those [images on social] media. So to a degree we’re designing [concert stages] to a square at the moment. That’ll probably change. Instagram may suddenly become a triangle” (source).
Instagram is causing teens to buy fewer clothes.
In 2003, teens spent about 30% of their budget on clothing. Today it’s around 20% (source). Why the drop?
One, the price of technology is up. Fewer than half of teens in 2003 owned a cellphone, but now you’d be a teen-freak if you didn’t have a full-fledged smartphone. The New York Times connects the drop in clothing sales to the growing cost of smartphones. More and more teens say that smartphone cases and the style of your headphones make a more important fashion statement than any one outfit (sources).
No surprise, teen-focused brands like Aéropostale, Pacific Sunwear, Wet Seal, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and others are financially hurting. These bricks-and-mortar stores and mall-centered companies are closing in part to poor, inflexible business models, and of course due to the ease of online shopping, and because of those rising smartphone costs.
But Ken Perkins, a retail expert, studied the drop in teen apparel purchasing and added this factor: “Teens are more interested in dining out with friends, attending shows, concerts, and sporting events they can post to social media than they are about their wardrobes” (source).
Wardrobes are Instagrammable, yes, but teen money is becoming more and more directed at shareable spectacles — certain unique Instagram-worthy experiences with friends.
So it’s no surprise . . .
Instagram is changing vacation marketing.
An article about the VRBO surge in Palm Springs quotes Jaime Derringer, the founder and editor of a large website that tracks design trends, who said: “This is the Instagram generation and it wants an experience associated with an area. And in Palm Springs, that means the desert, the sun, the palm trees, and the midcentury modern house. You want to stay at places that are Instagram-worthy because you are living your life as content” (source).
Vacationing is expected to produce immediately sharable content. So, if you want to rent out your home, it should be Instagrammable.
Outdoor adventure companies are beginning to advertise this promise to their clients: We will stage you for the perfect Instagram selfie as part of your kayaking, hiking, or zip lining experience (source).
Instagram is how we validate our travel.
Instagram is also changing our daily devotions.
You may remember the satirical video by comedian John Crist about how to stage the perfect Instagram shot of your morning devotions. “No matter what verse you choose to feature, you always want to make sure you highlight multiple verses with multiple colors. Because, after all, what’s the point of having devotions if no one knows about it?”
Later, after explaining how to stage all the right Jesus junk and trinkets in the background of your Bible, he says, “And remember, anything leather-bound is really going to pop with that Valencia Instagram filter” (source).
So, what’s the point of personal devotions if you cannot Instagram them? And what’s the point of coffee shop devotions if you cannot snap at least one shareable image of the foamy latte, Bible, and rustic table? Thanks to Instagram, our most intimate moments with God have become shareable performance art.
Even more — to take this point one step deeper: We post to Instagram the opening moments of the concert, the uneaten meal on the table, the unengaged devotional setting, the soon-to-begin vacation experience, all before we have tasted the experience ourselves. Not only is our social media life scripted in realtime, but it’s also a foreshadowing of our near-future lives. We showcase what we ourselves have not yet entered into. We find ourselves always lagging behind, always playing catch-up to the public projection of our Instagram persona.
My Habits Condition Others
We live online, and we love it! We are not victims of the digital age. Nobody forces us to live online. We want to go online. We want to be distracted. We want to be in the social mix. We want to escape our boredoms.
Disconnection anxiety and the fear of missing out are struggles on the inside of us. It’s all so addictive. So, we keep going back. We cannot stop. It’s like sugar. Or in the words of one psychiatrist, the smartphone is “a portable dopamine pump” (source).
And our children are taking their cues from us.
So, I wasn’t surprised to see the recent news headline: “Children as young as 13 being treated for addiction to mobile phones.” But the story never disclosed the deeper patterns.
We reinforce certain habits in each other, and we have passed them along to our kids.
So with my son, at the lip of a waterfall, eager to frame and record the moment to immediately share on social media — it’s not all on him. He’s been raised to do this. I bear some of the burden and the guilt for this pattern in his life.
My point is that step one in helping our kids navigate the vast reaches of the digital world is not encircling them with a wall of screen limits. Step one is for mom and dad to face up, fess up, and repent of the digital habits we have allowed to dominate our own lives. How often have our kids seen us check out and stare into our smartphone feeds, or laugh at inside humor in our texts and tweets, or gaze at viral videos on a laptop? We have conditioned them. They need to know we’re in this together with them, all of us trying to figure all these things out together. We may favor different apps, but we all feel the tug of the same root desires that — for good or bad — keep pulling us back online.