The Pros and Cons of an Online Life

(First appeared in Woman’s Way magazine, Ireland, August 2017)

Yesterday in Dublin city centre I had three collisions. Fortunately I was walking, not driving, and escaped unhurt.

The first was on Grafton Street. A young man came around a corner looking at his phone. Bam, right into me. I’d just stepped out of a shop on O’Connell Street when the second collision happened. This time, a women in her thirties, texting. The third time, a teenage girl with a selfie stick. She produced it suddenly like a magic wand. I walked right into it. Her phone went flying.

The previous week, while crossing the city on the DART, I’d gazed out at a beautiful sunset. It was the kind that makes you wish you were a painter, able to capture the colours, shadows and glow of a setting sun. The carriage was bathed in glorious golden light. Or perhaps that light was coming from the phones everyone else in the carriage was staring into. A space ship could have appeared outside and I’d have been the only eyewitness.

I’m not anti-technology. I have a smart phone and an iPad and I love both. I use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – sometimes too much. But what worries me deeply is that we’re all too addicted to our screens. By disconnecting from the real world too often, we’re missing out on more than sunsets.

I’ve been to live music gigs which most people around me watched only via their phone screens. I’ve been at landmarks like the Cliffs of Moher and the Eiffel Tower and seen people walk up, take a photo – usually a selfie – then walk away. There’s no reflection. No savouring of an experience. It’s rapid-fire living. Quick, check Facebook. Quick, capture a moment, then move on.

Yet a recent experience showed me that a balance can be struck in the battle between mindless online behaviour and mindfulness.

The past year was a sad one for my family in Ireland, with the loss of a much-loved family member. Winter seemed very long, the skies constantly grey. It was hard to even leave the house some days. I spoke often to my Mum in Australia, who gently advised me to go outside and do something, once a day. Anything. Even a short walk. Send me a photo as proof you’ve been outside, she half-joked.

Her request became a challenge. Throughout January, February and March, each day I forced myself outside, my camera phone ready. At first I sent Mum just one daily photo. A shot of the sky, usually. ‘Grey again,’ I’d write. Sometimes just our front gate as proof I’d been outside.

But as the days passed, I started looking for different subjects. I started noticing more. A shaft of winter light through the bare trees on a nearby street. Frost on a leaf. The blurry glimmer of street lights at twilight. Ice on the canal near my house. The wonder of a crisp blue winter sky after days of grey.

I was able to quickly take and send my photos. I often heard back instantly. ‘More please,’ Mum would write. So I searched for more and I sent more. Amid those sad times, I was reminded that beauty exists to surprise and console us.

Taking those photos helped me through to spring, and summer. By then, I was seeing beauty everywhere – fragile buds on trees, vivid-coloured flowers in gardens, brighter skies. Rather than bombard my Mum, I sent her a weekly highlights photo album instead. I still do, months later.

It taught me a lesson. Rather than be a Grumpy Old Woman yearning for the ‘good old days’, I have come to appreciate a simple truth. Modern technology can indeed separate us from the real world. But it can also connect us in ways we would never have thought possible.

Yes, I loved receiving regular letters in the post from my family in Australia, but how brilliant now to talk to them all online several times a day, individually and via groupchat.

Yes, I’d like to have attended my Australian nephew’s school concert, cheer his drumming amid the many other twelve-year-olds with their trumpets, saxophones, trombones. But how wonderful I could watch it live via video streaming. (Best of all, with the sound down at times.)

So my tip for healthy living with modern technology? Embrace it, but proceed with caution. Treat it as a special gift, not as a mindless tool. And one final request. If you do insist on looking into your phone while walking along busy city streets, please try to avoid a middle-aged Australian woman…