A Digital Native's Hope for Mindful Technology

Apr 07, 2016

This past weekend, I found myself in a Barnes and Noble in midtown Manhattan, strolling up and down the Self-Help aisle, browsing through hundreds of book titles. No, I wasn't looking for myself (although some of the books seemed really quite interesting), I was doing trend research for my day job (book publishing), trying to pinpoint which titles were attracting shoppers and which were getting overlooked. As you can imagine, the Self-Help shelf is a mix of topics ranging from relationships to mental health to inspiration. But there was one word that stuck out time and again, no matter the subject matter: mindfulness.

If you haven't heard this term yet, there's a decent chance you live under a rock (you might want to find a book to help you with that). Merriam Webster defines mindfulness as "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis." It's the core idea in meditation and yoga, and it has taken off like wildfire in the past few years. Why the surge in popularity? In my opinion, it has to do a lot with technology. The more use of gadgets has increased, the more people are clamoring to find a way to "unplug" and "live in the moment." It's a nice idea. The only problem is, it's not working.

I don't want to get too existential on you. But the idea of living in the moment is slowly becoming an archaic concept. We live our lives on social media, our iPhones, through email, blogs, and WiFi. And as the pressure to document every second of our lives on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and so on, mounts, appreciating a moment while it is happening has become an untouchable ideal (which is why there are so many books on how to chase it down).

According to The Telegraph, "Self-awareness is seen as the antidote to all the stresses and pressures of life in the 21st century. After all, when we look at the incidence of depression and mental illness, suicide and crime, the isolated, the disengaged and the lost in our communities, something is clearly going wrong. However, whether the solution to the pressures of modern life lies within each person is debatable, especially when many of the ills of modern life can be attributed to living online."

This is especially true for the Millennial generation and Generation Z. A few nights ago, while flipping through TV channels (yes, I still have cable), I landed on a live music concert. I'm not exactly sure who the performer was, but the audience was definitely mostly young people. Within seconds of a song beginning, the majority of concert goers whipped out their phones, pointing it directly at the stage, watching the performance through a 2 x 4 digital screen.

Question: if someone who is considered a Millenial or Generation Z has a good time but doesn't record it to post on social media, did it ever really happen?

A few days ago an Australian friend sent me an article she'd read from ABC news about the current state of social media use. Turns out a study done by The Australian Psychological Society found that "adults were spending 2.1 hours per day and teens 2.7 hours per day connected to social media." That's longer than my lunch break. If that statistic wasn't concerning enough, the study also found that, "56 per cent of teens were heavy social media users, connecting more than five times per day, with 24 per cent being constantly connected. Sixty percent felt brain 'burnout' from constant connectivity of social media."

So that's that. Young people are literally frying their brains with social media use.

It's obvious that, for many people, unplugging from social media and technology to steal a few moments for mindfulness and meditation just isn't going to work. And more so, even if it did work for people in, say, their 30s and older, it would be incredibly tough to convince anyone under the age of 30 to do the same, especially given how much of their lives are dependent on social media. So, instead of separating mindfulness and technology, why not put them together?

For example, a quick Google search for Mindfulness and Technology returned a blog post from DIYGenius.com that asks readers to "Pause for a few seconds whenever the phone rings, you get a message, or you feel the urge to check Facebook/Twitter. Take note of how that feels, to not jump up to answer it immediately. Do you feel anxious? Impatient? Or relaxed and calm?" Boom! Mindfulness.

Want to take that one step further? There's an app for that! For instance, Headspace is a mobile app that aims to help you learn to meditate. Its Take 10 is a series of ten 10-minute guided meditations to help users unwind and become more mindful of their thoughts.

Part of me hopes that taking this sort of pause in the face of technology will become standard practice (though I'm sure it won't). But, even if it doesn't, understanding just how consumed many people are with social media and mobile technology is important for companies that rely on these venues to communicate with their audiences. Now more than ever media companies need to be cognizant of when and how often they engage with Millennials (and younger people as well). If you're stressing out your audience with five or six email blasts per week, screaming at them that your offer is almost up, and showing them content they don't want to see, you're risking becoming just another drop in a bucket of "things to avoid on the internet." Let's just all take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, and pause.