Every generation has its challenges to face, from Generation Z to the Greatest Generation. Anyone alive today, regardless of age, shares a common challenge: how to live in a world that is increasingly dependent upon the Internet of Things, while maintaining our Humanity in our interactions with each other, especially in the Wild West of social media.
The year 2020, just over a month away, marks the end of The Teens. It also marks over ten years since billions of people around the world have embraced some form of social media in their daily lives. It is the largest psychological and sociological experiment done on humans. We’ve either been born into, or grown into, a life of staring down at our phones; of constantly being plugged in, logged in, checked in. We live in a strange new platform for relationships and human interactions, with ramifications unknown. Over ten years in to this complex dynamo of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and the way in which we relate to one another has changed dramatically.
Our collective challenge today is to be more humble and compassionate; qualities which are fading from today’s public discourse. I’m no expert on sociological research; I’m just an Elder Millennial woman who has lived through the advent of the Internet, Y2K, and the birth of social media. I am also a middle-school Math and Science teacher for the last fifteen years, giving me a unique perspective into today’s upcoming Generation Z. I’ve seen enough changes over these years to grow concerned about what Internet use is doing to us as a society, especially today’s youth, the Digital Natives.
I’ve watched their learning styles change over this time, including using computers in the classroom. My seventh graders are on their phones up until the minute the first bell of the day rings, and on them the minute the last bell rings. They sit in the hallways before school in small groups, heads down to their phones, hanging out only in parallel, not directly. They are savvy at finding information quickly online, but they view computers as an entertainment device. Despite the flux of online resources available today in the classroom, I have found myself going back to pencil and paper for many assignments merely because the temptation to go off-screen, like playing a computer game, is far too strong for many of my seventh graders. Self-control is not a known strength at this age anyway, but when you throw in the world of exciting online browsing, some kids cannot help themselves.
In spite of this temptation to play online, you can learn an endless amount of information by spending time on the Internet; this is where most people gather their information today, myself included. Learning online is like an infinite set of staircases. Every which way you look, somewhere new to ascend, aspire to. We are endlessly learning as we grow older, exploring a fascinating network of paths, interwoven and intricate, going places in our minds that only through the acquisition of new understanding can we achieve. It has its place in the classroom, but with a balanced approach that works for the teacher. Every teacher’s philosophy on computer use may vary slightly, but I know we wish we didn’t have to use Web Nanny services to monitor our students’ use.
Aside from being a gateway to entertainment, it is an amazingly convenient and powerful tool with which our society has developed a symbiotic relationship. This relationship is mutualistic to the extent that goods, ideas, and monies are exchanged via the World Wide Web through its multitude of platforms, from the Khan Academy math program I use in my classroom, to the small-business jewelry designer who sells a necklace on Ebay, to the World Wildlife Fund’s website, which not only educates, but invites donations, which add up to tangible preservation efforts for endangered species around the world. It’s also nice to share family photos with Grandma across the country. The ease of communication across thousands of miles is certainly a benefit to billions of people worldwide.
There is a parasitic, insidious side to the Internet and our relationship with it, though, and it is eroding our humility and kindness. Our cultural norms and accepted behaviors are evolving alongside today’s technology, and it’s reaching a tipping point.
First and foremost, it lies with the amount of time we spend online everyday, from the laptops, desktops, and mobile devices we check thousands of times, to the pictures we post on social media. The simple ergonomics of looking down, across, and up at screens of varying heights wreaks havoc on our necks, eyes, and bodies overall. It’s far too easy to spend an hour watching YouTube videos on autoplay, especially when all of that content may be educational or instructional. You can learn so many interesting things online – teach yourself a new skill, learn a new language, get a college degree. The depth and breadth of available knowledge – often in free format – is incredible, and is not to be underscored, but the toll it takes on our bodies is significant. Neck, wrist, and back problems are bred from bad ergonomics with our devices.
The next parasitic side of the Internet is the Instant Gratification Effect. We’ve grown so accustomed to everything being fast, automated, and tailored to our needs. When we want to know the answer to something, we Google It. Many of my students will look up the simplest answers online, despite having the answer within text on a worksheet or textbook in the classroom. They want the answer now, and aren’t so concerned about learning the process, or practicing by rote the “old-fashioned” way. They want the answer now, and they don’t want to work hard for it.
Their perseverance is suffering; they are prone to give up on a Math problem, or difficult Science question, without seeking guidance from the Internet, or myself. I believe I am not just teaching them content, but teaching them how to help teach themselves, ultimately. When they think they find an answer online, or on their calculator, or some other technological device that they deem more trustworthy than hand-calculated, “old-fashioned” Math, they are 110% certain they are right. Their confidence is high when it’s sourced from a website that looks official. They aren’t the only ones who fall into this trap, however. Adults of all ages do this too; we research a topic, cling to a few somewhat-vetted facts and figures we glean from websites that may or may not be reputable, and then we decide they’re fact.
We want the instant gratification of understanding something, and though well-intentioned, can rush to judgment on issues that may extend beyond a day’s research. We consult Dr. Google, and diagnose ourselves with medical issues (at least I know I do). We comb through forums and comments from people far and wide for information, all the while subconsciously gravitating toward that which we already agree with.
Confirmation bias is the essence of the Internet today. We operate within our own echochambers, sending out and receiving messages that confirm our beliefs, morals, and identities, at the expense of living within our own cyberspheres. The scary part is the misinformation that circulates online – the kind that undermines political elections (ahem, 2016), and breeds hate and racism.
This is where more humility is needed: people of all ages in today’s day and age need to be discerning of the information we come across online, especially on our social media feeds, and hesitate to commit to a stance on a topic we may not know a lot about. Coming from a place of always learning, and not having it all figured out, would be a welcome presence both online and in face-to-face interactions.
I’ll never forget being a Senior in High School, and I was on a pretty confident high – spouting off random facts from History class, correcting others’ grammar, basically being your typical teenage know-it-all. My awesome older sister, whom to this day is one of my best friends, said to me in some form or another: “I don’t care how smart you ever get. People don’t like being condescended on and talked down to”. She meant it in that loving yet firm older sister way that I took to heart and am grateful for to this day, from a place that only someone who knew me well could say. I was already a nice person with a good heart, but in my friendships and interactions with people from there on out, I was more thoughtful about how I spoke to others, and instead of acting like I knew everything on a topic, tried to shut up a little and listen more to what others had to say instead of waiting for my turn to speak. I also grew up, which usually cures all teenagers of their overconfidence. You quickly realize when you go to college that the world does not revolve around you and your adolescent dreams. Your humility deepens, too, as you experience the highs and lows of life; that we are all equal as humans, and no one is “better” than anyone else.
I am constantly learning, reading, pondering; I love working in education, especially teaching Math and Science, which I have no problem talking at length about, no shortage of interest and passion. I try to talk to my students as young adults, keenly aware of how much I disliked being talked down to like a child when I was a student. It’s a balance of leadership and getting out of the way. I also love it when I don’t know the answer to something. I like showing my students that there is always more to learn in life; that we are never done growing and evolving, and that we shall always nurture the sense of wonder and curiosity which serves as a catalyst for learning. I learn a lot from my students when they share their knowledge and experience, too. Staying humble to the vastness of the world keeps you open to learning new things, and it’s exciting that we always have something interesting to dive into. Every educator wants to nurture this innate love of learning. Using digital resources to effectively foster such learning, without watering down the depth of knowledge, is a twenty-first century challenge for all educators.
The third, and perhaps most influential impact on our emotional well-being, is the effect social media is having on our lives. We’re living in a brand new world, dominated by an incessant rush of images of people we barely know having more fun, looking prettier, happier, richer, better than us. The Internet, and social media in particular, is the essence of comparison; it is nearly impossible not to compare yourself to others, no matter how secure you are. Like we comparison shop online, we compare ourselves.
It’s easy to feel like we are always missing out on something, and we are, to an extent. The images we see remind us that we cannot do everything humanly possible in life; we can’t live both Jetsetter life and have a simple farm life, be an Antarctic researcher and be a tulip grower in The Netherlands. We can’t live the nomadic life of a Bedouin on the Arabian sands, and that of a rich actor in Hollywood. Yes, we can do many things in life of many varying degrees, but we just can’t do it all, and though we know this on a superficial level, it’s easy to forget in practice. We are reminded of this often in our online worlds, and the cumulative effect over time can dull our own confidence and pride. If we focus on being humble for the life we do have, and more compassionate with ourselves, we might compare less and appreciate more.
Amid this compare-and-contrast platform that social media provides, there is a genuine desire to connect with strangers and family alike on social media, sharing our life highlights to paint a carefully crafted avatar of ourselves. It’s only natural to want to be seen as your best self, and present yourself in the best light. We all take selfies, and we all tend to gloss over the hard parts in our lives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whether we choose to share our deepest or shallowest selves, our online interactions can foster authentic connections that otherwise may not happen everyday. There are positive interactions. There are mutually beneficial aspects to the Internet, but it’s not all good.
We are directly affected by the feedback we get from our social media communities, and though we ache for connection with others, our messages can get lost in translation. We can be misunderstood, or misread someone’s comment. Our self-esteem can be lifted or lowered based upon the number of Likes or comments we receive on our posts. Whether affirming or rejecting, the endorphins we get from these online interactions can become addictive, keeping us coming back for more.
This is where our relationship can become parasitic, where we’re the host and our social media feeds are the parasites. We can spend hours online, when we could be doing something cool ourselves. Or, inevitably, there comes a time when our posts go unnoticed or unliked, and that can leave us feeling rejected or inadequate; was I not good enough? We can feel overlooked. Share something too deep, too long, or too awkward on your social feed, and people will probably just ignore it, where your post will sit there like a stinking turd for digital eternity, unless, of course, you delete it out of shame. We can’t help but take pride in our online identities, whether we like to admit it or not. The bottom line is we’re still human, and we want to be liked; the desire for group acceptance is only natural.
Aside from fluctuating self-esteem levels based upon our social media, we can fall victim to being GoogleIt armchair experts, spouting off the top three statistics from a quick search, acting like we know everything on a topic. We dig our heels in and double-down on our positions, and soon after the name-calling and vitriolic back-and-forth begins. We’re so afraid to be wrong, we put the blinders on and declare battle with our opponents.
It gets ugly. The comments section online is a dark, mean place – Humanity’s underbelly on full, grotesque display. People start condescending on one another, placating with comments that convey a pious, holier-than-thou message. We talk about others’ lives and choices, judging them as if they’re fools, so pitiful to not see things from our point of view. People write some atrocious things that make me shudder. I am disturbed by the recent youth fads of bashing older generations in the Cybersphere, with various hashtags and memes that demean the wisdom, honor, and value of their elders. The blatant disrespect is unsettling, and shows a lack of compassion that is representative of our time.
Divisive is the word the moment, and nowhere is that more apparent than the comments section online. Our political climate is frothing with staunch left, right, and everything in between warring with each other on a myriad of websites and social media platforms. We live in one of the most divided societies the United States of America has ever seen. Our current President embodies all that is wrong with social media today: the cultivation of insults, misinformation, and lies designed to further separate our country into Us versus Them. The clash among the divide of those who support him and those who don’t is palpable right now, but most would agree that his behavior on Twitter is negative and demeaning to others.
It’s no wonder the world takes notice and follows suit, including today’s youth. We live in an age where anyone can attack our character online, make up mocking memes about us, and free speech protects much of it. Cyberbullying is a real, terribly powerful problem not just for today’s youth, but adults as well. People can be viciously cruel to each other. I had an eye-opening introduction to cyberbullying a couple of years ago which showed me what a big problem this is today. I am genuinely concerned for today’s youth, growing up in a world that values making fun of others online so much. This is the generation that has grown up watching others for entertainment – whether watching wipeouts and “epic fails” on YouTube, making up memes, or just laughing at someone’s Instagram post, there is always a laugh to be had at another’s expense.
We ought to be more humble with each other; we ought to focus on being the best versions of ourselves in our real lives, not just in the facade we manicure in the cybersphere. We ought to be more compassionate – get off our high horses, and stop throwing shade at the expense of others’ happiness, judging other people for being different than us. We’re not better than anyone, just different.
Though we will not agree with everyone in life, we can keep our decorum civil. I always loved the old adage, trite as it may be: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. It really is that simple. I am so moved by kindness activists like Wendy Sullivan and the #imkinderthanthat movement she began to spread more kindness around the world! We need all the compassionate leadership we can get. It would be awesome to see people be kinder in their online interactions.
Undoubtedly, the most important way in which we need to be more humble and compassionate is in our interactions with our Planet Earth. We are overharvesting, overmining, overpolluting – overeverything – our ecosystems to the point of permanent damage, as in species extinction. With nearly eight billion of us, it may seem like we are the most important species on the planet. The Human Race is not the center of the world, no matter our celebrated technological advancements and innovations. We share this planet with thousands of other species, all with an inherently equal right to co-exist; after all, we are one of the most recent species to emerge in the tree of life. They were here first.
We have so overpopulated the planet, exacerbating climate change and a multitude of human rights issues with everyday that we grow more ubiquitous. Part of the reason I don’t have kids of my own yet is my ambivalence about adding another human into the world. There are simply too many humans on our planet, and the last thing we need is more of us making things worse.
Humility is missing from the arrogant, domineering swagger of humans. We think we can outsmart the domino-effects already set in motion from decades of worsening inaction, and though we can invent our way out of many issues, there are natural systems in place that we cannot control.
We cannot outsmart the power of Mother Nature when she unleashes a hurricane like we’ve never seen, or a multi-year drought that leads to infernal blazes in my home-state of California. We’re only starting to see the catastrophic effects of climate change, with the endangerment and extinction of species, shifting agricultural zones, rising sea-levels, and the hottest years on Earth all occurring within the last decade – to name a few. There are many unknowns that we have yet to see unfold over the coming years.
We’re seeing the effects of our pollution in our bodies. We’ll be living with the yet to be understood effects of all the toxins, additives, synthetics, hydrophobics, antimicrobials, you-name-it chemicals that we’ve polluted our bodies with over the years. We’re in the midst of a huge experiment, one among many, happening on the human race. We are the test subjects of a nascent industry of chemical engineering that has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, from the toothpaste we use, to the waterproof GoreTex jackets we depend on in the snow, to the laundry list of pesticides and chemicals we ingest from our food and water. We are suffocating in our own carcinogenic haze, like a fish in warm water, slowly inuring to the conditions. Even if one ate a perfectly organic diet, the odds of being exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals is high simply from the air we breathe and the water we drink. Microplastics are in our air and water, our clothes, and increasingly, the seafood we eat. The pervasive plight of plastic will be our age’s bugaboo, but so will our bioaccumulating, persistent compounds like PFOA’s, and DDT, which has been banned in the US for decades, but stubbornly remains, a testament to its toxicity.
The story may vary from place to place, but the theme is the same: human manipulation of nature, with dire consequences on the environment. We need to be humble with each other, but more urgently, with the Earth. Our choices and voices matter; we need to do something, because everyday species are threatened with extinction, the environment gets more polluted, and the climate just keeps on changing with all the greenhouse gases we keep pumping into the atmosphere. I am deeply affected by the pain and suffering we are causing today, especially on animals.
When I see images of poached, slaughtered elephants, or desperate sea turtles getting run over by cars on artificially lit beachside roads, I want to cry. When I see footage of commercial livestock facilities, or read yet another study showing how bad things are getting with the environment, I am crestfallen. I am not worried about humans going extinct, or us destroying the planet to a wasteland apocalypse. What I am worried about is what we are doing right now, and have been doing for years – ravaging our planet’s resources with little regard for its inhabitants.
When I read about the last Western black rhinoceros dying off several years ago, I felt like a piece of garbage, so guilty for mankind’s wrongs. What kind of species causes so much pain and needless destruction to so many others? What is wrong with us that we allow this to happen? Regardless of how complex the issues are, the simple fact that we are in the sixth mass extinction right now should grab everyone’s attention and command action. The first five major extinctions were caused by natural causes, while this event is anthropogenic, and happening at a faster rate than previous events. I recommend reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which elucidates the severity of our current situation, or check out my book report on it for a quick synopsis.
I know I’m not alone, that there are millions of others who feel the same, but it doesn’t help to commiserate when the injustices continue on a daily basis. I try to do my part by being a Science teacher, and living in ecofriendly ways; I was an Environmental Studies major, and am always learning more to deepen my understanding of ecology and the climate crisis. Being informed is important, but there’s so much more I could do; there’s so much more all of us could do. I am tepidly hopeful for the future, inspired by activists like Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda who, among many others, are protesting for our elected leaders and corporate executives take responsibility, and more action on the myriad of climate issues that press everyone alive today. No matter our age, if we’re living today, we ought to care about the issues we face. From teenagers to our esteemed elders, we all have a stake in how we treat our planet.
Sometimes we need to get out of our own way to see what’s truly in front of us. We need to set our egos down in order to actually hear the message so clear. We need to act as though we don’t have it all figured out, and act as though that is an exciting, and valuable, place to approach life from. We ought to listen more and talk less. It is only through teamwork and the exchange of ideas that solutions to some of our world’s problems will be found.
It would help if we all had a big slice of Humble Pie, with a generous side of Compassion, when it comes to dealing with each other, and our Earth; when I say we, I mean me, too. We all have growth to do. It’d be nice to see more humility and kindness in our real-time and virtual human interaction all around. Let’s put down our phones a little more and practice being good humans with other actual humans, in person. Let’s drop out of the social media contest that we can’t win, and instead celebrate our potential to help the world be a better place, from the environment, to our relationships with others. Let’s be comfortable with not being the center of the world, with understanding our small place in the grand scale of the Universe.
Now, we don’t need to quit using the Internet and social media altogether, but it would behoove us to reflect upon our relationship with it. I realize we are so interdependent upon our online connections that you may not be reading these words if not for social media. People have their own boundaries and balance to find with their online use; I encourage everyone to be humble and kind no matter what they do online. We don’t need to go back to living in caves, either, but we ought to take responsibility for our immense impact on the environment.
Let The Humble Twenties begin. May it be a decade of humility, compassion, and action to improve our climate crisis. May we all embrace a future less divided, and focus on the ways in which we are united – on working together for a sustainable future.