Attention Must Be Paid: Writing Young People Into My Life

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Photo by Derick Anies via Unsplash

How do you write about the activities of people who don’t act in ways you can see?  I’m spending this month in West Texas writing a novel that has, as a main character, a 16-year-old boy.  Of all the characters in the book, this was supposed to be the easy one, since he’s loosely based on me at that age.  The challenge I presented myself is that the setting of the book is a small town circa 2017.  A lot has changed since I was 16.

One of the most obvious changes is that technology has radically changed the way that people, and especially young people, interact.  Some of the most important connections people have are now facilitated entirely by virtual means.  So how do you set a story in the physical world that includes those interactions?

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photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

There are clever writers doing this, I’m sure.  But as I try to put myself into a contemporary teenager’s world I realize that the kind of connections I had that came from just roaming around my town may never happen or would not happen in the same way.  With my main character walking the streets, I have to figure out why he would meet anyone his own age on those streets.  Why would they leave the house?

Atlantic magazine has an article out entitled, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”  What’s that, you say?  ‘Isn’t the title a little histrionic?’  Well, yes, I’ll give you that.  But the statistics are sobering. “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”  Why?  The lure of the screens.  “Teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011.”  Why?  Well, there’s this:

“Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less.”

The thing is, the story I’m hoping to tell may seem implausible because it’s taking place in, you know, the time/space continuum.  The only physical impact of an online life may be one that a teenager quoted in the article offers:

“I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people…My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.”

There are lessons here, for writers and churches.  One is, we can pay more attention to how the lived experience of young people is changing.  Sure, we could retreat to a ‘get off my lawn’ mentality and say, “They just need to put down the screens and smell the roses.”  (And by ‘smell the roses’ we mean, ‘be like we were.’)  But we’re all addicted to screens and we’re none of us being very thoughtful about how we use them.  I see an opportunity for shared conversation on how we live meaningfully in the digital and analog realms.

Secondly, we can invest our offline interactions with the attention they deserve.  The holy nature of a conversation, the sensual beauty of broken bread and shared cup, the visceral power of singing and live music.  As Linda Loman says in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”

Also, there’s a public health warning for all of us.  The evidence suggests a real positive link between mental well-being and in-person interactions with others without screens.  It suggests we use our accountability partners to develop spiritual practices around use of technology.  (It also suggests we HAVE accountability partners!)

Here’s my tech tip related to this: turn off the notifications on your phone.  When that little circle on my mail app disappeared I was no longer thoughtlessly checking throughout the day to keep the number down to zero.

There’s more to learn, I’m sure, and I’m trusting this teenage character of mine to lead me deeper.   As well as real people…of course.

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