Alienated or standing out?

I was volunteered to sale books at my daughter’s high school on my birthday afternoon. She heard the word books and she volunteered her mother. I love how she makes that instant association. Later, she realized it was my birthday and meekly asked, “Oh, it is your birthday? Will you do it?”

I, of course, did it. What better way to spend a couple of hours on my special day than to sell gently read books to book-loving teenagers to raise money for a good cause. I was in. I was also lured by the prospect of my high schooler sitting next to me during her lunch break. She said she will sell books with me while she was at lunch.

As I sat there among milling teens I observed a microcosm of the world we live in. It is all in there – the groups, the sub-groups, the layers, the sub layers. The popular teens – confident, dressy, flying hair, The gamers with the certain look and hair, the athletes, the scholarly ones colloquially known as nerds. The groups were different in demeanor, looks, attitude, confidence but they were similar in one aspect – the device they held in their hands, their smart phones. It was clear that the different groups sported a certain look and that look was one of uniformity within the group. I chuckled silently at the thought that these same teens who try to break out from the norm try their best to fit in and belong within their own peer group.

The high school has implemented the BYOD (Bring your own device) rule this year because they felt that social networking is and will be an integral part of the times and world that these young people will inherit. The objective of the school system, by allowing device in the school, was to teach the young adults responsible usage of social networking. I will not get into the debate of whether the experiment is successful or not. As I see it, it is a way of the education system to save face and tell the children, ‘Fine, bring your device to school, because we know you are sneaking it in anyway.’ The other benefit, according to the principal, was the children can use their own device to pull up resources during instruction time. And the ones who don’t have their own device (the tiny minority) will have access to the class computers.

The lunch break was an interesting time to observe the teens with their mobile phones. Most of them walked while their eyes were on the phones, different expressions played on their faces – beatific smiles, frowns, nonchalance, excitement and so forth as their fingers browsed internet/Facebook/ tumblr/snapchat. They walked with their friends but did not interact with them directly, like we used to. There were, however, interactions! Their laughter and camaraderie revolved around jokes/messages that they found on the phones and shared with their real life friends. Although it was odd to see them connected to their devices while their friends of flesh and blood sat right next to them, I did observe solidarity and enjoyment. It seemed odd to me only because I have experienced the laughs, angers, sentiments and direct communications with my friends before this wired age but these children have not. But these children have sustained their friendships, built and broken them, in this way. Whether the relationships they make now in this unique way will withstand the test of time, only time will tell. I recently read a beautiful post written by a friend lamenting the loss of direct communication. I lament it too and I feel our children are missing out. But then again, our children have hardly experienced or nurtured many friendships in our way, how can they miss what they never experienced?

There were some loners too. And there I saw the advantage of cell phones. If you are eating your lunch alone, you don’t seem conspicuous any more if you have your phone in front of you. You can blend in just fine if you hypnotically look at the screen held in your hand like everybody else. You don’t have to hide your head and find a corner to sit so no one will notice your loneliness.

My daughter has an antiquated device at home, but I was not convinced enough to send that device to school with her. I said she could use the school computers to access resources. She has done fine without her iPod in school. When I mentioned my observations to her she looked at me with ‘now you understand how alienated I feel because I don’t have a device at school’ expression. She said it too. I said, “How about you looking at it in a different way? Instead of feeling alienated, how about this idea – you are standing out?” She nodded her head disparagingly, “You don’t understand Mom. It does not work that way.”

Confessions of a facebook addict while in rehab!

In a moment of insanity, I decided to deactivate my Facebook account. I gave myself a deadline when I will sever my connection with the Facebook world…for a while! Strangely, I was excited and nervous about it at the same time. I was excited that I will be free of the constant desire to check on everybody’s business and sad that I will miss the fun banter and often times the serious exchange of ideas that I had grown to enjoy so much.

My trip to Rome was an eye opener. I stayed away from the internet and Facebook for seven days. Since I was spending my every waking moment exploring, enjoying, experiencing Rome, I didn’t miss Facebook. But how would it be in my real life where I am often bogged down by chores, responsibilities, decisions? Connecting with friends on Facebook was like a breath of fresh air for me. But the problem was, the breath of fresh air had become a violent storm. I felt constantly drawn to the iPad or the computer to check if anybody wrote back on my status update or how many comments did I get on my picture? Facebook sometimes exposed my follies and often times triggered my thinking brain which stays dormant mostly as I switch laundry or mow the lawn. It was a huge, happy time sucker. My folly, I realized, is vanity. I choose the ‘good’ pictures to share with my friends on Facebook. I check how many likes I got on my updates. At the same time, the non confrontational me finds enough courage online to comment on issues I feel strongly about. Facebook is like a fantasy world full of laughter and camaraderie. I started living in the fantasy world while my real world started collapsing around me.

Mother’s day morning was special. After the usual excitement of handmade cards, gifts, hugs, cuddles, Sahana, Ryan and I just sat in the living room for an ordinary chat. I didn’t have my iPad, Sahana didn’t have her iTouch. She said, “This is just wonderful. We are sitting together and looking at each other. We never do this. We are either working, or studying or at sports or on our computers/ipads/itouch. We should take at least an hour each day to do just this – chat!” Ryan was lying on the couch, he piped in his philosophical input, “I am the only free person here. Mommy is always on her iPad, daddy is on his computer and Sahana is on her iTouch. I am the only one who is free, the only one with a life!”

I left for Rome in the afternoon. But I carried little Ryan’s words in my heart. It came back to me again and again as I roamed the streets of Rome. Without my cell phone, my iPad or my computer, I was completely disconnected from the world-wide web. I was free. I came back home and plunged right back into social networking, posting pictures of my trip, writing blogs and posting them, checking often to see the comments and stats. Life resumed, chores piled up and I escaped into my virtual life, laughing, bantering, reading poetry, exchanging ideas on important issues, being armchair analyst. My virtual life was brimming with happiness and friends. My real life? Well…if a day had 36 hours, I would have been fine. But it doesn’t and I wasn’t fine. I decided to deactivate and focus on things that were important.

Resistant to change, I pooh poohed Facebook when it was first mentioned to me couple of years ago. “I am never getting on it, that’s not who I am, I am a private person”, I said. My best friend from college didn’t let go. She connected with old friends, people were asking for me. Those magical college days, those inseparable friends – I was sold. The first few months, for me, were full of new discoveries, of reunions, joy of connecting with old friends, sharing my story and hearing theirs. I was often chanting “Facebook zindabad” (long live Facebook) online and off. But without my knowledge, things started getting out of control.

So one fine morning, I chatted briefly with friends, went to my account settings, my fingers shook for a few seconds over the ‘deactivate’ button and I touched it. I felt a strange sensation of severing connection with a fantasy world where I was loved and wanted. I am loved a lot in my real world too, but in the Facebook world that feeling of being loved is quite palpable, it’s there, out in front of you, in written words! That’s paradoxical, don’t you think? Palpable love in a virtual world? I make it sound dramatic but the sense of loss was real. It was done!

I was surprised though, to realize that with the sense of loss there was also a sense of unfettered glee. Freedom from my self-inflicted imprisonment in the unreal world of Facebook. On the first day, I got so much done, the feeling of being productive was exhilarating. At night, I started missing my friends. I was sad to think I would wake up the next morning and won’t say a cheery good morning to the friends with my morning cup of coffee.

Day 2 was miserable. I was moping around the house constantly thinking of the people I left behind in my virtual world. I had forced my husband to hold a wager that I won’t go back for at least two weeks. The fear of losing out to him kept me from running to the computer and logging myself back on, but oh, I was sad! I haven’t had any experience with kicking an addiction, but on ‘Day 2’, I got a clear idea of what people go through during withdrawal. At the same time, I felt good about being strong at resisting the urge.

Day 3 was much better. Facebook was loosening its hold on me. I was thinking and focusing on things at hand more instead of rushing through chores to get back on the site. I sat and read with Ryan, focusing only on the little body nestled to me while he read. I listened to Sahana focusing only on her words and making a mental note where and when to drop her off and pick her up. She mostly talks to me as her personal taxi driver as her social life and school life is buzzing with activities. I completed my chores on time, read a few pages, wrote a few words, the ‘pre Facebook me’ was back.

This distance was important for me, not only to get a control over my addiction to social networking, but also to get a perspective on why I spent so much time on it. I still love what Facebook world has to offer – some wonderful, like-minded friends, uncomplicated relationships, heartfelt laughter, food for thoughts but it also showed me I can get on Facebook on my terms. I will go back to it, I miss my friends too much not to. But I know I can cut back my time on it. If I feel myself slip sliding back into the same addiction, I will do the same – hover over the deactivate button, my fingers shaking and finally touch it to sever connection temporarily, with a feeling of deja vu. I learnt a lesson about myself, through something as trivial as Facebook, that I actually do have self-restraint. It’s a good feeling.