How my 14-year-old sister’s digital dependence motivated me to quit my job in pursuit of a solution
Originally published on October 2, 2018
I like to think I’m a pretty happy guy. A couple of guaranteed grin-grabbers include my family, live music, and galloping through the Atlantic Ocean at high tide1.
Fortunately, the list of things that dampen my spirits is much shorter and consists mostly of condiments. On that glorious day though, the waves could’ve turned to Miracle Whip and I wouldn’t have winced. That’s why I was so caught off guard when a bit of juvenile jargon hit me like a tsunami…
Watching that sunset at Cocoa Beach was the cherry on top of a dream vacation for our family as we celebrated life and good health for a full week in beautiful Orlando, FL, thanks to Bill the Brave2 and Children’s Miracle Network, who helped us celebrate his remission.
In the reflective mindset we found ourselves in, it was especially important to document our experience together; and document we did. Between the eight of us, everything was captured – from roller coasters to car rides. Whether it was us older brothers writing down memorable quotes to read through on the flight home, or the younger siblings sharing them live over Snapchat, we all had our own style.
As a millennial with a virtually non-existent digital footprint, I enjoy the luxuries of catering to a very small audience when it comes to social sharing. Knowing that my eyes will likely be the only ones to ever read my journals or flip through my pictures allows me to document my experiences through an unfiltered lens all my own.
As a high school freshman, my little sister enjoys the validation and gratification of catering to a larger audience of her peers. Knowing that her content will appear across the screens of countless followers motivates Melina3 to perfect each moment for optimal digital stimuli. In effect, she experiences these moments through a bifocal lens, balancing her personal and social presence.
3: Middle School Graduation; ft. Mel Bell
For me, remaining fully engaged in a moment tends to outweigh any benefits I stand to gain from sharing the experience with a wider audience. This is not to discount the many benefits of social sharing, but simply to state that they seldom compel me to engage in it. All things considered, this decision is highly variable and exceedingly personal, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. [The complexity of the motivations behind our social urges is something that I will take a deeper look at in future blog posts.]
As you may have guessed, I tend to find myself on the lower end of the digitally connected; and on most occasions, I’m content in merely observing the habits of those around me. However, when it comes to family time, especially with my 6 teenage siblings, I can’t help but put my “dad hat” on (literally)4.
4: Dad-level selfie skills
Admittedly, I’ve no shame in adding selfies to the family photo album, but I naturally give more thought to the moments I choose to share socially. Similarly, when the dad hat is donned, I encourage the same consideration from my siblings. As their sharing inevitably borders on reckless, I urge them to reconsider their audience and give some thought to their intention before posting.
These “lectures”, as they affectionately refer to them, can usually delay a posting by 5-10 seconds (the time it takes them to flash me one of these5), but rarely do they succeed in altering the conduct itself. In fact, Melina has recently developed the ability to do both of these things at the same time.
5: Photograph courtesy of Speelosh
Needless to say, this response has taught me to pick and choose my battles; and on that trip, the only battle we had in mind was the one Little Bill had just won. So if his twin sister wanted to celebrate with a perfectly timed aerial sunset pic, I wasn’t about to get in her way.
That – and I was busy trying to body surf.
At any rate, Melina sweated through takes on the beach until perfection was captured6. Coincidentally, the only filter this picture needed was the naturally waning light of the golden hour*, leaving just one final hurdle between Melina and her followers: the caption.
Leaving nothing to chance, she retrieved a pre-written caption from her phone notes (a popular “lecture” topic leading up to the trip) and posted it alongside the photo on Instagram. She must’ve prepared quite the caption, too, because the post reached triple-digit likes before we even got back to our hotel – a milestone that Melina made sure to update us on the entire ride back.
*highly anticipated among photographers and selfie-enthusiasts, golden hour refers to the period of optimal lighting that occurs shortly before sunset
6: Candid AF
Winding down for the night, I signed on to respond to any important messages and peep the daily stream of pictures and videos uploaded by the siblings throughout the day. This part of my routine usually drew the attention of the camera-slingers themselves, eager to admire their work; so when I got to Melina’s Snapchats, she was right by my side to laugh and cringe our way through her day.
She’d captured everything; even our thrilling drive back to the hotel, which featured a standard front-flash selfie accompanied by some mysterious teenage text. To this day, I can’t say what possessed me to clarify the meaning of those three little letters… but for whatever reason, I asked:
[A]: “ What’s LMR?”
[M]: “You wouldn’t understand – you don’t have Instagram.”
[A]: “But you posted it on Snapchat?”
[M]: “Yeah, it’s so my snap-friends know to go like my new Insta post – it stands for ‘Like My Recent’.“
The idea that my little sister felt the need to petition for approval across social platforms made my heart sink. My subsequent speechlessness gave her the opportunity to point out just how common this and other practices were among her peers. And although this did little to ease my concern, it was eye opening to realize how much time and energy could be focused on tracking and optimizing one’s social persona.
From premeditated posts to real-time performance metrics, these adolescents are basically running full-time marketing campaigns; and, in my opinion, long before they’ve had time to define their own brand8.
More than any of the acronyms or anecdotes that Melina shared with me that night, what struck me the most was how vast the disconnect was between our viewpoints. The same behavior I considered to be toxic and compulsive, she maintained to be beneficial and routine. It was, and still is, this glaring disconnect that inspires me to expand my understanding of the complexities that enable our society’s digital dependence.
8: party 2nite @ my crib
This mission forced me to re-examine how I was spending my time and energy, eventually leading me to leave my job in IT Consulting. So, after three years of assessing human controls over technology…I decided to focus, instead, on its control over us.
Don’t get me wrong – technology is a beautiful thing. It allows me to tell my story the same way it allows Melina to share hers. However, the same tools that allow us to connect and express ourselves can take a toll on us in ways that we don’t fully realize or understand. Once we collectively acknowledge that technology has the power to direct our attention and alter our habits, we can start to demand more responsibility from its designers; a responsibility to build humane technology…
But until they come around, we might as well show them how it’s done.