It is midnight. Rachel fell asleep two hours ago, but the intermittent ding of her cell phone keeps waking her up. Suddenly, she stares at the screen. Her best friend, who for weeks had been struggling with boy problems and cyberbullying, just sent a text:
“I am just going to end it. It’s not worth it anymore.”
Rachel freaks. Her heart starts racing and her palms begin to sweat. Her parents have been asleep for hours. Alone in her bed, her mind starts spinning in circles. She has no idea what to do.
Studies have indicated that 85% of teens sleep with their phones in or near their bed. In addition to concerns about how this is impacting onset and quality of sleep, there is an equally grave concern about the position that kids are placed in when they are subjected to communication throughout the night. Recently, a friend informed me that her son fell asleep at 9 PM and woke up the next morning to 209 text messages. His day had just begun.
The average 8-18 year-old today spends almost 8 hours linked in to media/technology; it is around 11 hours if we account for multi-tasking. The subject of youth and technology is an expansive one, and anyone that is interested in hearing more about research and reflections can seek this out through my monthly online column, Just Thinking (www.stmarys.org/articles). But it seems that any related discussion should begin with a simple, yet critical concept. It is the concept of “better.”
When conversations come up about technology use and youth, I often hear that “better” means this: greater ease and convenience, increased access to a wide variety of information, and more emotional, instantaneous experiences. If this is how we define better, then I have little argument that our youth have benefitted from the technologically immersive culture of today.
But if I shift the definition of “better” to one that encompasses the four primary dimensions of our being—physical, psychological, social, and spiritual—we suddenly find ourselves, as parents, in an uncomfortable place. In each area, I can point to many studies that suggest outcomes no one desires. Physically, beyond the sleep concerns associated with screen time, we know that technology use is strongly connected with obesity and Type II diabetes, as sedentary behaviors and snacking increase when screens are involved. Psychologically, I can demonstrate the connection between increased distraction, anxiety, negative mood, academic problems, and behavioral noncompliance as the gaming, texting, and surfing hours increase. Socially, research has highlighted serious indications that even the most basic skills, such as making eye contact, nodding, and empathetically responding, are being compromised in youth who can’t separate from their devices. And spiritually, among other indiscretions, I can tell you that the average child first views online pornography at the age of eleven and that the typical young adult male accesses pornography 50 times a week. And if poor development isn’t enough, I can clearly show you how texting is intimately linked with the number one cause of death in adolescents—traffic accidents.
If we as parents consider all of this, it must make us uneasy about the current technological climate when it comes to our youth. Yet, I wonder. Would we ever be such a willing participant in a harmful lifestyle if it wasn’t one in which we ourselves embraced in much the same way? I truly think this issue is the most important of its time, even beyond the concerns I have raised. But midst many different opinions, I will offer a frank one:
The devices that have been left to our kids are not “child’s play”, and should not be treated as such. At any given time, our youth can run up thousands of dollars in bills, view graphic and disturbing sexual images, be awoken with frightening messages, reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, and live an otherwise distracted, detached life.
For What? Convenience? Access? Experience? Keeping up with the trends? Our kid’s brains only have a little over 20 years to develop the core they need for their rest of their lives. There are much more important things to pursue.