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Are we turning into social retards?

Voice of the Valley by Pearl Lee, as published in Malay Mail today.


HE sat quietly in the corner of the room, eyes fixed on the small screen of his mother’s smartphone.

There was hardly any interaction with others. He was fixated watching Barney and Friends while swiping the screen, from one app to another. He even knew how to skip the advertisement which appeared before his YouTube video loaded.

Benny turned two recently but he uses the smartphone like a pro. His parents have no qualms allowing their son to fiddle with such a gadget. It’s called the “hand pacifier”.

“It’s easy for you to say. When you have a child, you’ll end up doing the same,” the mother remarked sarcastically as she passed the phone to her son right after answering a phone call.

Other parents claimed they bought phones especially for their toddlers. Afraid their more expensive devices would break once in the hands of their curious young ones, they prefer buying cheaper alternatives which will still be able to entertain children – from playing Farm Heroes Saga to streaming cartoons.

But the addiction towards the handheld gismo is beyond children. They observe us, and they learn. We too are fixated with our phones, phablets and tablets.

While Benny was easily distracted with the colourful screen in the palm of his hands, another family of five were sitting across the room.

All of them said their hellos to the host just as they entered. And there was complete silence soon after.

Dad’s phone rang non-stop while mum was giving out Candy Crush lives through her smartphone. The eldest son was scrolling through his Facebook page repeatedly while the younger two were hooked on YouTube on their tablets.

It was supposed to be a gathering. But it ended up being a quiet affair.

It appeared as if people had nothing in common. Or perhaps it is a situation where people just didn’t know how to interact with one another anymore.

Gone are the common courtesy of greeting an old friend or saying a proper farewell. These days, it’s just “ok bye” and the eyes are hooked onto the phone again. It seems WhatsApp conversations are way cooler than conversing in person.

“It’s easier to communicate via WhatsApp than meeting face-to-face,” an acquaintance once said.

“When you meet someone, you just don’t know what to say. It becomes awkward. At least conversations on WhatsApp, especially in groups, are more fun and even if you don’t answer or as long as the two ticks do not turn blue, it’s fine.”

Have we turned into being social retards?

I am not going to pretend to be holier than thou, for I too have been guilty of checking my phone more often than I should. I tend to console myself, saying it’s part and parcel of my job … that I need to keep abreast with the latest news and happenings.

But deep down I know it is a lame excuse. And I’m sure you know that, too.

And it is lame that people prefer not to talk anymore but speak through their gadgets.

A local daily recently highlighted how an engineer, addicted to online games on his smartphone, had divorced his wife and surrendered custody rights of their children to her. Despite attending counselling sessions, the husband felt playing online games on his phone was his hobby and no one could stop him.

His wife also complained that whenever he loses the game, he would take it out on his children.

In another case, a wife admitted she had neglected her husband and house work for the sake of completing a level on Candy Crush.

Sad isn’t it?

But there are those who do not fall into such a trap, including former Apple chief executive officer Steve Jobs.

Jobs, who died in 2011, was a self-confessed “low-tech parent”, tech journalist Nick Bilton said. In a New York Times article, Bilton asked Jobs if his own children loves Apple’s iPad, Jobs replied: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

And Bilton was surprised to learn that other leading figures in the tech industry practised a similar philosophy.

Former editor of Wired, Chris Anderson, told Bilton, as published in the same article, that he set strict time limits and parental controls on every device at home.

“My kids accuse my wife and I of being fascists. They say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said.

“That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology first hand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

A friend insists that her four-year-old son should not be near any electronic gadget.

“I want him to play and have fun and be a child. I don’t want him to be hooked on videos and online games,” she said.

“While others may say that my child will be left behind, I just want him to play, run around and mingle with other kids. He is supposed to be a child and that is what children are supposed to do.”

Parenting or leading one’s life is a personal choice. But one must also remember that every individual, especially a child, must learn to enhance his or her motoring skills beyond their thumbs.

Try putting aside your phone while having a meal. It can make a lot of difference to those around you.

More importantly, we should learn how to speak, understand and listen to one another. These are qualities that make us human.

PEARL LEE is roving news editor of Malay Mail. She can reached at pearl@mmail.com.my or on Twitter @pearllee22

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