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From selfies to selfless

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What are we reaching for when we reach for our cell phones?

selfless, a documentary created by Fraser Valley based mother and daughter team Kim Laureen and Megan Dirksen of Fresh Independence Productions, poses this question while simultaneously exploring the use of cell phones usage among young adults and its link to mental health.

selfless is, in the truest sense of the word, a passion project: it was created entirely out-of-pocket. When production companies turned down Laureen and Dirksen’s pitch, they used savings, Air Miles, and hard work to make the documentary come to life.

And that’s why when we’re asked to consider what we’re trying to fill when we pick up our electronics and log in to social media, we listen. Is there something missing that we are trying to find with whatever is on the screen, such as comfort or affirmation? Or perhaps it’s become a habit, something to do with our hands and minds, rather than doing nothing.

“When we have our devices, we open them at any given time of the day, because we are bored, or anxious, or we are looking for an answer,” Laureen explained. “It seems that we are trying to fill ourselves up with something.”

Laureen described how wherever her and Dirksen would go, they would see people hunched over cell phone screens, ignoring the faces around them. And this is true; walk through campus or take a seat at a coffee shop and you’ll see many people with a screen in front of them, rather than a book, or another person, or even more rare, nothing at all to occupy them. It caused Laureen and Dirksen to wonder what long-term effects cell phone usage has on our minds and bodies, and inspired them to create selfless.

Dr. Mike Brooks from Psychology Today, a psychologist whose work centres on finding balance in a tech-focused world, suggested that society’s addiction to cell phones stems from classical conditioning, a type of learning where a stimulus is associated with a response. When it comes to social media, the chimes, buzzes, and rings of notifications indicate to our brains the feel-good reward in the form of a hit of dopamine is on its way from a successful social interaction. We’ve evolved to understand that this hit of dopamine is a good thing, and the behaviour it comes from is one we should repeat. So we keep coming back.

According to Dirksen, social media usage is extraordinarily high. “Snapchat has over three billion messages every 24 hours,” she said for emphasis. Considering how much time we spend on our phones, Dirksen wonders how much good we could do for the world if we used that time for positive things.

“What a dent we could make on some of the issues out there,” Dirksen wondered.

In selfless, Dirksen visits and interviews a number of teenagers and young adults who have managed to break the addictive cycle of attachment to their cell phones and other screens, limiting and balancing their screen time, and increasing their social relationships and contributions in the real world.

“We wanted to go in from the heart. Get people to feel, to stop and take a moment to look up, push your phone to the side for a moment, and be more present,” Dirksen said.

Her first visit was to Kuki, a teenage girl living with her family off the grid in Devon, England. Their access to wifi and screen time is very limited, and they appear to live a more fulfilled life, finding other activities in the present moment to fill their time. They enjoy lots of time outdoors, walking, gardening, playing guitar, and spending time with each other. For example, enjoying a conversation during a family meal, where no one parents included looks at their phones.

In another visit, Dirksen spoke to a group of high school students about smartphones and the connection between their self-worth and social media. Students discussed how their emotions and confidence could be tied to the number of likes on a social media platform; in short, their self-worth could go up or down depending on quantity of engagement on their post.

To Dirksen, one of the most frightening aspects of the selfie age is the lack of empirical studies that have been done on the effect of so much cell phone and screen time on our physical and mental health.

“The reality is we are all part of an ongoing experiment,” Dirksen said. “There are no true studies taking place. The study is happening right now. And our kids, all of us, are a part of it, and most don’t even know they are in it. There are a lot of scary things that could happen.”

Despite the lack of long-term studies, professionals in the healthcare field are already reporting seeing negative effects on our health from cell phone use.

In the documentary, Dirksen spoke with an optometrist about the effect of so much screen time on our eyes. Unsurprisingly, staring at a screen for too long can have adverse effects on one’s health, such as altering your circadian rhythm, suppressing melatonin (which is linked to mood), and creating oxidative damage in the retinas.

Greg Bay is a physiotherapist and director at CBI Health. In the documentary, he described the changes he has seen to the bodies of people who have come in for treatment. Some describe pain and tingling in their fingers and arms from too much time on their cell phones, bent in the same position.

What can we do to counter these negative repercussions of excessive cell phone use?

For starters, we can take inspiration from eight-year-old Ryan, who collects empty bottles and cans on the beach, cleaning up the environment while also raising funds to donate to an ocean wildlife centre. Other students interviewed engage in music, guitar, singing, painting, writing, or art. But most need a path that leads them out of themselves to connect with others and contribute to society.

It’s commonly accepted that doing things for others or doing things that don’t involve screens is more beneficial to our mental health than spending time on social media. When interviewed for the film, students expressed that using social media left them feeling worse than before. They believed things they spend their time on should leave them feeling better than when they started.

Above everything else though, Laureen and Dirksen wanted the documentary to be uplifting and bring hope, and not be perceived as being solely negative toward technology. So, they posed a question: how else could we be achieving complete satisfaction and what else could we be doing with our time? A number of young adults in the documentary fill their time with positive activities; instead of reaching for their phones, they reach for something meaningful.

Aside from the obvious benefit to society and how it helps create human connection, volunteering is useful in that it gives us mental, physical, and emotional benefits. According  to B.C. Living Magazine one such benefit is known as “helper’s high,” the release of endorphins into the brain that produce a similar effect as exercising, eating good food, or hugging a friend.

The documentary is not prescriptive, and Laureen and Dirksen don’t offer rules or antidotes. However, the main message, coming from one of the interviewees is, “life is precious; don’t miss it.” In short, reach for those around you, for passion and generosity not your phone.

In this reflective way, the film sends a message that is both open ended and clear, the essence of the film. Reach for each other in the real world, not the online world. Reach for life by going outside and getting fresh air. Above all, take a step back from social media, from your devices, and reach for what’s around you in the present moment.

She ends the video with some of the students outside, enjoying simply walking in nature. Instead of heads down on screens and faces that were not engaged with one another, their phones are not in sight.

“Technology doesn’t rule you. You can have a healthy relationship with it. It’s like everything in life … finding balance.”

Image: Renee Campbell/The Cascade

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