Let's talk about teens and technology

Teens. And technology. Both are subjects most of us have some personal experience with, and opinions about. And both are subjects which are well studied by social scientists and child development experts.

What are the experts saying? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

Yes, our lives are incredible because of digital technology. We can work from home, do our banking in our pyjamas, and listen to a huge range of music on exceptionally cute bluetooth- enabled speakers. Technological advances in medicine, communication, and engineering have made things simpler and safer, and in many cases, they’ve also saved and extended lives.

It is exceptional to be able to communicate with people in the ways that we now can. When one of my ancestors hopped aboard a boat at age eighteen and travelled from Ireland to New Zealand, he never saw or spoke to his mother again. Now our eighteen-year-olds text us from the supermarket because they’re not sure which milk to buy.

And I’m not even saying either of those things are better or worse than the other, but they do serve to illustrate a point:

Our lives are radically different than the lives of most of the humans, ever. Geeks like me who love a good longitudinal study are very aware that, in terms of measuring outcomes, we are in uncharted territory when we contemplate the long-term effects of our love affair with tech.

Early results are in amongst news fields of psychological research (Google “technoference”) … and yes, I get the joke … I’m sending you online in the midst of an article proposing the need to spend more time offline. It would seem that our technology habits run the risk of interrupting our significant relationships, and therefore healthy human development.

First things first: we need to recognise (and teach our kids to recognise) that these technologies are addictive. That’s right – they are designed to be addictive. For more about this, look for tech- whistleblower Tristan Harris and all he has to say. He used to work for Google, and now works to highlight that “we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.” Harris advocates for a “Hippocratic oath for software designers” believing it would “stop the exploitation of people’s psychological vulnerabilities.”

For our own sanity, productivity, and relational health, we need to put limits on our tech use. Further, for the sanity, education and health of our children, we really need to put limits on their tech use. And if the September 2017 issue of ‘Next’ magazine is to be believed, “8/10 Kiwi teenagers and 6/10 primary-school aged children say they have no limit on screen time at home”.

Man, I hope they got their data wrong, because that is simply alarming.

It’s especially worrisome when we consider the amount of time that many kiwi school children are now spending on tech devices during school hours. Also that there is usually little or no communication between home and school about how much time children have spent engaging with tech during any given day, so there isn’t any adult keeping an eye on their actual daily amount of screen time. All this while writers like Jean M. Twenge in her excellent book “iGen”, point to research conclusions such as: “The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.”

Meanwhile, there is cause to question our current system, and the extent to which we are relying on technology in our schools. The OECD pointed out, in a report published in 2015, that “education systems that have invested heavily in computers have seen “no noticeable improvement” in their results for reading, maths and science”. What’s more, an article in the Scientific American published in July of 2017 led with the headline that “Students are better off without a laptop in the classroom”.

There’s plenty of research supporting the value of handwriting, for example, we know that people retain more information when we use pen and paper to record something than if we use a keyboard to type it – and there is certainly no argument that we all thrive when we are given the option of how to tackle a task – digital or analog?

Some productivity and creativity experts, like New York Times bestseller Austin Kleown, insist that we all need to think in terms of dividing our work between our “digital desk” (with our laptop ready to go) and our “analog desk” (pen, paper, no devices in sight). Ask your teen how often s/he is being allowed to work offline if s/he would prefer to – increasingly, schools are removing the analog option.

In a paper called “The Digital Revolution, and Adolescent Brain Evolution”, author Dr. Jay Giedd summarised that “Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives”.

Benefit and suffer.

Our access to digital technologies, whether at school or at home, cause us to both benefit and to suffer. So how do we maximise the benefits and minimise the suffering? Well, friends, to paraphrase a quote from the world of toxicology, the difference between a medicine and a poison is the DOSE.

With this in mind, I end with some suggestions:

  1. Recognise that our kids’ exposure to tech is like their intake of sugar, or fat. A little bit may be great, but that does not mean that a lot is better. Medicine or poison? It depends on the dose.
  2. Lead by example! One of the simplest ways to avoid tech overuse in your house is to check your own habits. One hint: download the app “Moment” onto your smartphone – it measures how many minutes you’ve been onscreen. I got it – it’s humbling.
  3. Designate certain times/places to be screen free. Perhaps you keep the dining table or bedrooms phone-free, or try the “breakfast before browsing” challenge to delay tech engagement.
  4. Prioritise the relationships in the room, wherever possible. If you truly must engage with a screen, say “Excuse me…” first.
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