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Look Up! If You’re Looking Down, Won’t You Miss Them Looking Up?

Hannah Bowden

19 Jun, 2024



Here at Youthscape, we have been reading through Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Anxious Generation. In short, his hypothesis is that the smart phone has shifted childhood from play-based to phone-based, causing a ‘re-wiring’ which has resulted in an epidemic of mental illness in ‘Gen-Z’. We will consider the ins and outs of this argument in a future blog but, for now, I want to turn my attention away from young people and towards us as adults. It is my view that order to look out at the world and work toward positive transformation, we must first look at ourselves…

It was a Monday afternoon, and I was waiting for my train home from work having had a great day which included our second The Anxious Generation book club discussion. As I made my way down the platform, I was struck by something. Nearly every single person in my line of vision (I roughly counted this to be 18), had their heads bowed looking at their phone or were staring into the distance as they listened to what was coming out of their earphones. Having not long ago been discussing the pros and cons of phone use and engagement with social media with colleagues, I made a conscious choice not to look at my phone.

Suddenly, I was more aware of the sun beating down on my pale skin, the swaying of the trees in the distance, and the sound of trains rushing by. As I looked down into my bag, I saw my phone. Without realising, I then found myself looking at Instagram. It wasn’t even a conscious decision that I had made, but somehow my subconscious had told me I needed to check the work Instagram post had gone live. I had to attend to my inner anxiety which had been stirred by seeing everyone else engaging in the online world. I shifted back into reality and almost threw my phone back into my bag only moments after it had somehow got into my hand.

As I got onto the train, I was greeted with many more people all with their heads bowed looking at their phones. There was one couple talking to one another but, aside from that, no one was looking up. Again, I made a conscious decision to look out of the window, appreciate the view, and try to see things that I hadn’t ever seen before despite doing that journey multiple times a week. As I did so, I began to reflect on both my phone use, as an almost-30-year-old, and that of those older than me. It led me to wonder:

How can we expect young people to look up and out if we are looking down and into our phones?

Ultimately, if this is the behaviour pattern we are stuck in and are modelling to the outside world, this is the behaviour pattern we are going to see passed down to those younger than ourselves. Instead of focussing on how we help young people to look up and out, why don’t we make changes to our behaviour patterns first?

In recent weeks, I have been making a concerted effort to be on my phone less. To avoid the mindless scrolling when I am bored or in those ‘in between’ moments, I have

removed most social media apps from my phone. I now either access social media on my laptop or via my old phone. Whilst I recognise this is a (very) privileged position to be able to access additional devices, it’s an approach which enabled me to have physical and mental distance from the immediacy of social media. I have begun to curb my addiction to TikTok dances, finding bargains on Facebook Marketplace, and reading complaints posted about someone parking on double yellow lines in my town. It feels good.

This is what I want to achieve because of this change:

  • Be okay with boredom – I don’t need to fill this void. It’s a natural experience as a human.
  • Use the ‘in-between time’ to recognise God’s creation around me. Use it to thank God for where I am and what I am doing.
  • Prioritise ‘real world’ connection; smile at a passer-by, strike up conversation with someone on the train, recognise people and situations that I might pray for.
  • Model a healthier behaviour pattern that, at this present time, is likely to stick out more to those around me. I can’t invest in helping young people to use their phones less if I am doing it too.

What changes can you make to change your phone-based behaviour patterns, so you model what we want young people to do? Or, if you’ve got this nailed, how can you help those around you?

Look up from your phone. That way you won’t miss young people looking up.

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