Every summer I host and teach English to non-native English speaking kids, who come to stay with my family for a ‘total immersion’ experience in an English family. I teach them in the mornings, and in the afternoons we have excursions or ‘free time’. Each year I do this, for at least a couple of weeks, sometimes longer. Every time, I notice the addiction to wifi, gadgets: iphones, ipads, bluetooth earphones, etc to be more pronounced. And that is just the gadgets they have brought with them. Back home they have often left behind more expensive gadgets: XBoxes, Playstations, other models of iphones they own and will no doubt update as soon as the next one comes out.
The boy I am teaching this month has bluetooth earphones on all the time, listening to ‘rap’ from his own country. When he arrived at my house, he got out of the taxi and the first word he said was ‘wifi’; not ‘hello’ or ‘nice to meet you’ but simply ‘wifi’. Perhaps I should learn to expect this, but to say I was shocked is a bit of an understatement. These kids think wifi is some kind of divine right, like water. He has wires dangling from him all the time and he spends a lot of his free time when we are not on an excursion, watching a series, via the internet on his top-of-the-range ipad, in his native language. To say he is having a total immersion in an English family would be a lie. He isn’t. He is isolated from us.
I feel genuinely sorry for these kids. They sleep with their gadgets plugged in, dangling from their ears or hands…
As an artist, what I feel most strongly about is looking. I don’t paint from life, per se, but what I do is look and remember, so that I don’t get too caught up in the process of representation and that my interpretation is always my own. With the kids of today, I worry that they will not learn how to look, to connect with nature, or with feeling, sensing. With my own son, I take him up to the top of a cliff to look out to sea, to see the horizon, to allow his eyes to relax into the vast distance. Recently I took my student to London and I banned him from using any of his devices, unless it was for photography. I marched him ’round Tate Modern, made him look at art, informed him that without his bluetooth earphones he should listen, and notice how the sounds, sights, smells and people were all different from those in his home country. Pretty obvious stuff, but I feel they will never experience anything first-hand, but one step removed from reality, and they will always live in a form of hyper-reality, or even unreality, and not learn how to notice visual or aural clues from others. Everyone will be atomised, separated, distanced and there will be no real meetings of minds or hearts. My student constantly shows me how many ‘likes’ he got from his Instagram photo yesterday, and some of the photos aren’t even photos from his life, but photos he has screen-shot from a football game..
You see these girls too; hyper-made up, with facial contouring, and even their stance is like something from an Instagram shot. They are always ready for the next shoot and super-aware of their looks and appeal. This concerns me even more. How girls are self-objectifying and are more concerned with their attractiveness than ever they were in the past.. I have read of people addicted to selfies, and kids who won’t leave the house until they have caught the perfect selfie. How many followers they get on social media is more important than real-life friendships.
One year, I took a boy to Canterbury, driving through the countryside on a beautiful summer’s day. He did not look up from his phone. He wasn’t reading anything; he was playing a game. In Canterbury he didn’t look up from his phone. I don’t think he even saw Canterbury. Another day, I took a student to Brighton. Again, a beautiful sunny day. We sat at the outdoor table of a restaurant. He had his bluetooth earphones and asked the waitress for the wifi code. Isolated once more.
I do make my feelings known and sometimes quite vigorously. I tell them, in no uncertain terms, that it is a shame that their parents have paid a lot of money to come to another country, and they are not even looking at it, listening to the sounds, experiencing all the idiosyncrasies of life in a new place. I clearly and fairly loudly voiced my concerns yesterday in the restaurant, about how he was not even experiencing the place he was in, that he was not learning to look, to see, to notice, to soak up ambience. After I had spoken, another mother told her children to get off their phones. Obviously, we are all complicit. I too have a teenager. He has a phone and an Xbox. All his friends do. We resisted buying him one until the time he was starting to feel alienated from his peers for not having these gadgets. He is still embarassed by his phone. It is not a ‘cool’ one. Thank goodness that now he is into mountain biking. This makes me so happy.
My sister told me about the time she took her students up the i360 tower in Brighton, where you glide up to 450 ft in a fully enclosed glass viewing pod, to admire views across Brighton and the south coast. None of the kids were looking, but each had their phones up, and were filming it through their phones. Looking at the views through devices, probably to later be shared on Instagram or facebook.
There is no such thing as boredom any more. Kids are not allowed to be bored. But boredom is so important in childhood and adolescence. I remember one summer I spent the whole summer playing patience and solitaire through a rainy and long six week holiday. I recall observing things as a child and kept a non-physical memory box inside my mind. I watched the shadow of a seagull gliding over the tarmac of my school playground and decided I was going to put that in the box and I would never forget it. Another time I was lying in bed and someone slammed the front door and all the radiators in the house jingled and shook with the vibration, and I added that to the memory box. I still recall them all. I used to doodle, spending hours creating these elaborate designs on my bedroom wall. I was bored, and I knew it, but boredom allows the mind to drift, to expand, dream, grow new neural pathways. It also allows the mind to be still or quiet. Just as painting is healing for the mind and body, it synchronises the mind to the pace of each brush stroke.
I am not getting into the effects upon the health of individuals for prolonged exposure to wifi as I am no expert, and there is so much information and misinformation on the internet. However I can see with my own eyes the effect on psychological health. Clearly it causes a form of attention deficit disorder and that is just for starters. I know that I am not exempt, as I love my phone and my laptop, and use it for work and communication daily, but thankfully I grew up before wifi and I learned how to live, communicate and play before it.
It is not my role with these kids to confiscate their devices, although I can insist in a classroom situation. However, it is simply the addiction in free time that concerns me. Maybe it is all part of an evolution and I am resisting it, as of course I remember my Mum telling me I watched too much TV as a child, although I don’t think I did, but to her perception I did..
I try to incorporate physical activity into some of my lessons. I find going for a walk with my students makes them communicate and allows conversation, and for a brief time they are free of wifi, just walking in nature.
Nowadays everything is one step removed; atomised. People have long-distance relationships with others where they barely see each other, or some just once or twice a year, although speaking / ‘seeing’ /sexting each other via WhatsApp or Skype etc.. It satisfies a certain desire for connection, and it is said that distance creates desire..
But you can’t beat physical touch, conversation and simply having a coffee alone or with your partner or friends and just watching the world go by.