Linked In, Part I: A Day in the Life of Our Youth
6:14 A.M. The flickering lights of the television fill Aubrey’s room a few minutes before her buzzer goes off for school. A few miles away, Aubrey’s friend awakens to the alarm on his cell phone. Bobby quickly checks his messages to discover that his girlfriend texted him after he had fallen asleep. He sends a quick text to explain why he hadn’t returned a call until now.
6:20 A.M. Aubrey wakes up and turns the T.V. station off the news because it always depresses her. She sends a quick tweet to let her friends know that she is running behind. She posts a picture to Instagram from the night before when she found her dog eating the leftover cake. She quickly logs into Facebook to see if any of her 221“friends” (the average teen has around 200) have posted during the night. Meanwhile, Bobby texts a few buddies to see if they want to meet up after school to play Call of Duty: Black Ops II. He rushes to get ready before grabbing a Pop-Tart on the way out.
7:16 A.M. On her way to school, Aubrey texts her friend about schoolwork while waiting at a stoplight. By the end of the day, she will have exchanged 130 texts, slightly less than average for her female peers.
8:35 A.M. Bobby, bored as usual in Geometry, slides his phone under the desk, texts his friend and surfs the web. He responds quickly to a return text.
10:48 A.M. Aubrey is a little annoyed and worried. She never heard back from her friend last night that she texted twice in congratulation for pitching a shutout in softball. Her friend has been depressed lately.
1:31 P.M. Bobby finds himself in Mr. John’s class, who doesn’t care if students get on their phones as long as they are not making a lot of noise. He starts texting his friend across the building about the Pacer’s game that night.
3:30 P.M. Aubrey returns home. She flips on the television in her room and gets on Pinterest. An hour and half passes in what to her felt like 15 minutes. She opens her Netbook from school and starts to work. She struggles to find the motivation. She starts flipping through 150 channels. She’s bored.
4:49 P.M. Bobby and his friends are in the middle of an hours-long multi-player Call of Duty game. Someone is really going off. There is a lot of chatter through the X-Box live.
6:32 P.M. Aubrey and her friends text back and forth about the crazy picture someone in the junior class posted on Facebook. The television remains on. Her Netbook is still idle in front of her.
10:40 P.M. Aubrey’s eyes get heavy. She gets ready for bed, but leaves the television on because she needs the background noise to sleep. She leaves her phone on next to her head on the pillow and falls asleep.
11:37 P.M. Bobby is dozing on the couch. He awakes to the phone vibrating in his pocket. It’s his girlfriend. He texts her back quickly to let her know he’s sleepy. He promises to keep his phone nearby this time in case she calls later like last night.
12:40 A.M. All is still in both homes. Aubrey’s phone, laptop, and television remain on. Bobby’s phone remains on in his jeans pocket.
This is a composite sketch of America’s youth and technology. It is a story told in so many numbers, and so familiar to many parents and youth alike. A few statistics to consider. Nine of ten adolescents have used social media. Three out of four have a profile on a social networking site. Studies indicate almost 70% of teens text every day. A new study finds that 20% of third graders have a cell phone while 83% of those in middle school do. Fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds text over 110 minutes a day while averaging around forty minutes talking on the phone. The average 0-1 year-old spends twice as much time in front of a television as a book. Almost half of 5-8 year-olds have a television in their room. Thirty-eight percent of gamers are women. Although adolescents are a large consumer of video games, the average player is around 33. The average 8-18 year-old in 2009 spent approximately 7 hours, 30 minutes exposed to technology a day, but close to 30% of this time was engaged in multi-tasking (e.g., watching television while texting). So the total exposure was close to 10 hours, 45 minutes, which was almost 44% more than in 1999. Total time was broken down in the following way: Television content 4:29, Mobile/audio 2:31, Computer 1:29, Video games 1:13, Print :38, and Movies :25.
Conversations with youth regarding media/technology (henceforth just known as technology) are often very frank and transparent. Although they acknowledge a clear dependence on technology for communication and leisure, they seem resigned to what for them is inevitable. Many say that they do feel overwhelmed by so many images and words, but often shrug reflexively as if it’s just part of being a teen. They say they need their mobile devices to stay connected. Though teens I talk to say that they can turn off their mobile devices whenever they want to, they rarely do. There is an unspoken pressure to respond quickly to close friends. Without mobile devices by their side, they worry they will be left out of the loop. By the time most teens reach high school today, technology has become so embedded in their lives that it is difficult to realize how few moments of the day pass in utter silence without interruption. They have no idea just how fast their world has changed and how much they are being pressured to manage on a daily basis.
This is the linked-in generation. These are the youth we love. These are our leaders of tomorrow, those who will teach, heal, manufacture, sell, invent, and care for us as we grow old. They will be called to be our primary tax base, to raise the generation that will come after, and to nurture the ideals and values that provide a basis for our freedoms. They are just are on the brink of young adulthood, or what has recently been termed adultescence. It is in reference to a growing population of adults 20-35 years old who seem to be hanging onto to the lifestyle of their teenage years. As our future, we must make sure that whatever consumes them, no matter how appealing, allows and promotes their development in a way that will sustain them as they sustain us. Anything less doesn’t seem right.
(links to research cited available through Media Clearinghouse at www.frankwbaker.com/mediause.htm)
Linked In, Part II: How Did We Get Here?
Before examining the argument for or against technology, it seems that we must take a look at how we got to this point so quickly. The first acknowledgement must be that the technology itself, regardless of our view regarding its content and usage, is nothing short of brilliant. The virtual world of gaming has become uncannily similar to its lifelike counterpart. A close friend of mine confided that during a tour of Iraq, many soldiers would regularly play video games. They so closely mimicked their lives in the field (at its worst) that it became simply too chilling for him to remain in the room. The breadth and speed of the internet is mind-boggling. Mobile devices seem limitless in their capacity. To many, they seem very much to be the loyal, resourceful friend they have always dreamed of. Equally as brilliant is the marketing. It pulls for emotions and allure in the most creative of ways. It practically anticipates what the consumer wants or asks for.
It seems that this is where we must begin, where basic evolutionary principles are at play. Throughout history, when humans were presented with options to increase convenience, speed of communication, access to information, and status, the trend became difficult to resist even in the face of initial uncertainty. In the September/October 2009 issue of Exploration magazine, the article The Promise and Perils of Electronic Communication, detailed how the invention of cars was met with varying levels of resistance. Angry citizens even tore up roads and vandalized other property to prevent further progress. Gradually, though, cars increased status and convenience. It eventually led them to be accepted into modern society. However, something interesting happened along the way. Although society generally embraced vehicular travel (despite an estimated 32,788 traffic fatalities in 2010 in the United States), it became recognized that the younger population simply didn’t possess the faculties needed to safely use cars. This led to limits on the legal driving age. Over the past twenty years in Indiana, constraints have even grown. Individuals were previously able to attain a driver’s license one month after their sixteenth birthday with no restrictions. Now, an operator’s license cannot be attained until 16 ½ years old. New drivers also have a probationary license. Restrictions focus on allowed driving times, mobile use, and legal passengers. It seems the costs with regard to life, injury, and financial loss led to a more limitations than just a few years ago.
Other factors also play a role in the massive growth of technology. In his comical, but researched book, You are Not so Smart, David McRaney illuminates a number of well-accepted psychological principles that are not so widely known. In his first chapter, he discusses Priming. He defines priming as occurring “when a stimulus (e.g., object, experience) in the past affects the way you behave and think or the way you perceive another stimulus later on.” For example, repeatedly seeing food commercials may unknowingly lead us to feel hungrier and seek out something to eat. Priming is a well-established phenomenon. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated consistent effects at often astounding rates. Subjects can be unconsciously induced to walk slower, be more patient, clean up better after themselves, and do many other things without ever discerning what is the driving force. Even more startling, people almost never attribute their actions to the priming effect. They will often work to confabulate a story rather acknowledge they don’t know what caused their actions.
Over the past seventy years, no one has come to understand this better than marketing and advertising companies. There is a reason that a thirty second spot in last year’s Super Bowl sold for an average of 3.5 million dollars. It was not just the amount of people it reached. We and our youth are already barraged daily by an incredible number of images. Commercials are also designed to take advantage of the priming effect. If you don’t believe it works, ask yourself this? Why does Nike have a 2.5 billion dollar per year advertising budget much of which directly focuses little on its products? Why do hospitals spend millions of dollars in advertising as they compete for a local market share? It’s not that most of us don’t know these products and services exist. It’s that repeated priming is worth the money. When it comes to technology, the more we and our children are exposed to media, the more priming is at work. We just don’t like to acknowledge how much unconscious factors play into our choices.
McRaney also discusses another psychological principle that plays a significant role in the technology story. He terms it Brand Loyalty. He indicates that the misconception is that “You prefer the things you own over the things you don’t because you made rational choices when you bought them.” He indicates that the truth is “You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.” This does not apply as much for products that are necessary (e.g., toilet paper). But it becomes particularly salient for unnecessary buys, such as an iPad. Advertisers for companies like Apple have learned the most effective way to sell products. It is not to broadcast just how good the products are. It is to publicize the type of person they enable you to be. An iPad, for example, allows you to convey a particular image. In effect, it becomes branded into your self-identity. Once this happens, you begin to exhort all the advantages of owning this product. When a new version comes up for sale, you feel compelled to buy it. Conjointly, it seems particularly important to let others know you are “not falling behind the times.”
School districts are also finding themselves in the technology wave. In order to compete for students and ultimately procure more state and federal funding, billions of dollars every year are being spent on upgrading technology. This sometimes comes at the cost of larger class sizes, teacher cuts, and raised local taxes. Just like the individual consumer, they want to remain state-of-the-art. Certain schools and districts have shown an improvement in overall proficiency rates; however, no large scale evidence clearly indicates that students are benefitting from the upgrades. This is especially evident when it comes to improved standardized scores as was reported in a recent in New York Times article on September 3, 2011. In 1997, the federal government created a panel that ultimately opened the door for a significant amount of funding to “upgrade” the country’s schools. However, even the committee acknowledged the uncertainty of this move. The report’s final line read, “The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology with America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research.” With that, both the mainstream culture and American school system took a dual plunge into the unknown chasm of the technology age.
There are other matters at play. But these are certainly some of the most important characters in the story. What is particularly unique, though, about the technology tale is that it all seemed to happen at once. The difference between 1992 and 2012 is as if we should be talking about centuries of change. It appears that this massive confluence has created almost a whirlwind effect when it comes to the proliferation of technology. In four of the five major areas (gaming, mobile devices, internet, and social media), the tipping point, or stage of critical change, occurred in the last twenty years. Even with television, there has been a marked increase in satellite and cable programming during this time. The days (not that long ago) of network channels signing off for the night are long gone. As indicated by Malcolm Gladwell, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do.” Technology certainly has been a superbug. It has even led many of its loyal adult consumers to acknowledge being overwhelmed even while they remain avidly plugged in. Just imagine what this means for our youth.
Linked In, Part III: Benefits and Risks
Technology seems to spur a love-hate relationship with its users. When technology works, we adore the convenience and experience it brings. When it fails, we find ourselves exasperated at how much it immobilizes us. A similar paradox exists when we look at the benefits and risks of technology – some perceive it as wonderful, others feel it has led to a significant decline in our society.
A number of studies have indicated that movies/television can be helpful in improving academic skills and increasing prosocial behaviors in children over the age of two. Programs such as Sesame Street and other educational initiatives have been shown to increase performance in specific academic areas and fairly complex skills, especially among an at-risk population. This is especially true when children identify with a particular on-screen character (e.g., Big Bird). Youth can also learn important social messages such as anti-bullying, empathy, and cross-cultural acceptance. Many of us remember growing up with afterschool specials that specifically targeted pre-teen and adolescent populations in a prosocial way. Certain clinical populations (e.g., children with autism spectrum disorders) have also been shown to benefit from media-oriented interventions, such as social modeling. Television also can buffer the effects of parental pathology, including parents with alcoholism, by allowing children to escape the immediate stress.
Similar findings have been noted with social networking. In addition to increased usage for civic improvement and social change, social networking can increase adolescent social connectedness; however, the caveat is that this benefit seems to only exist when these same friends talk regularly in person. It also enables those separated by geographic division to more easily stay connected. Like email or other forms of computer mediated communication (CMC), social media theoretically allows users to think through their responses in a way that face-to-face communication does not. Social networking also allows those who are shy, or socially isolated, to initiate and/or maintain friendships more easily than seems possible interpersonally. However, research has not indicated that shy individuals who maintain social networking relationships use them as a springboard to real interpersonal interaction. Those who are simply lonely do show better progress towards face-to-face communication.
Parallels exist for mobile devices. They can serve to make communication less daunting for many (especially through modes such as texting). It has been suggested that mobile devices used as tracking or emergency devices can increase safety or monitoring, but no clear evidence suggests that this counteracts the huge risks discussed below. Internet resources undoubtedly create access to a volume and breadth of information that was never available before. But serious questions remain about whether individuals (especially youth) know how to distinguish between quality versus unreliable information. In regards to gaming, the research regarding positive effects has been somewhat limited. Certain gaming programs do exist to aid rehabilitation of those with serious neurological and/or orthopedic injuries, but these are relatively new. Also, it has been suggested that gaming potentially improves visual-spatial and fine-motor skills, and can be used to teach other complex skills. Like television, prosocial video games have also been shown to increase helping behaviors.
Positive effects have been shown in certain studies. However, few experts would disagree that a majority of studies have illustrated a significant number of risks associated with technology. A few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a review indicating that the number of hours in which youth viewed television was associated with negative outcomes in the following areas: attention, obesity, sleep, reduced consumption of fruits & vegetables, reduced compliance at home/school, poor academic performance, decreased creative play, increased aggression, and negative mood. Numerous studies indicate that technology (especially gaming and movies/television) contributes to increased violent behavior and negative self-image. A number of medical conditions, such as attention-deficit disorder, hypertension, depression, obesity, diabetes, have been positively associated with high rates of television viewing. Social networking seems to be especially tied to risky behaviors. It increases the likelihood of miscommunication or limited intimacy because it doesn’t allow for nonverbal communication. There is also significant concern that increased media exposure diminishes opportunities to develop intuitive social skills, especially in young children. Social networking is associated with decreased self-esteem and increased rates of narcissism. Research points out that high school and college students are especially vulnerable to identity theft and excessive sharing of private information. This potentially hurts their chances of being admitted to a college or hired for a job as employers routinely screen online for red flags with potential employees.
Mobile devices carry great risk on the road. Studies show that texting and drunk driving carry similar risks. Few teenagers show the ability to refrain from usage while driving. This is not surprising given that more than 70% of adults acknowledge having used the phone while on the road. As mentioned in the August column, studies indicated that between 2001 and 2007, texting accounted for 16,000 additional roadway fatalities in the United States. Many parents may feel that their adolescent’s phone is a safety net. The reality is that it poses a risk of injury and death greater than any other potential threat.
A full review is not within the scope of this article given the breadth of this literature. However, I would like to draw us into a deeper examination of the issues. The first concerns theoretical usage versus actual usage. Studies do confirm that most technology can have a positive effect. But actual data indicates that youth are more widely using it for leisure than for educational or altruistic means. The top three uses for the internet are emailing, using websites for leisure, and gaming. Second, it is well-known that adolescents struggle to know their limitations. This is critical to understand regarding unlimited technology access. Look at the average number of texts an adolescent exchanges per month (~3,400). Do they really understand how continual texting can affect their attention, mood, and follow through given that teens are especially poor multi-taskers?
Adolescents need adults help to regulate their behavior. All major medical advocacy bodies support age limits for drinking, gambling, smoking, and driving. Our prefrontal lobes (which are critical for higher-order thinking and decision making) are not fully developed until the mid-twenties. Critics would suggest that technology is inevitable – that attempts to regulate its growth will only lead to greater underground behavior. But the reality is that many of our policies are a response to negative trends in society just as restrictions on driving have been. Consider this. The top three leading causes of death in this country for 12-19 year-olds are motor vehicle accidents, suicide, and homicide. Distracted driving is the number one reason for traffic accidents. Depression and impulse control problems contribute highly to completed suicide. Homicide is strongly associated with mood issues, behavioral problems, and learning deficiencies. Consider what our experts say about how technology is linked to these difficulties. It seems we should start asking a lot of questions before allowing our youth to become wedded to the trend.
Even if technology is not a problem, it is clear that it is anything but the solution. Many studies have indicated that where technology can create progress in teaching core skills, direct human interaction can do the same, often better, especially in young children (exceptions were noted prior). However, the reverse is not true. Healthy, productive adults must have the characteristics of self-control, perseverance, emotional regulation, social-emotional awareness, and sustained focus that were developed as youth. These factors are intimately linked with positive outcomes in health, relationships, and career. If a youth does not develop these skills, it will be very difficult to do as an adult. And no matter how sophisticated technology becomes, it simply cannot provide these unique building blocks. That remains distinctly human. The misuse of technology only makes it more unlikely that youth have the time, desire, and patience needed to sustain good relationships. Sadly, the result may end up being that no person can live up to their games and their phones, just as no phone or games can truly live up to another a person. It seems that this is becoming an increasingly hard sell for many of our youth.
Linked In, Part IV: Consideration of the Public Good
Dr. Susan Greenfield set off a firestorm in 2009 when a British online newspaper published the headline: Social Websites Harm Children’s Brains: Chilling Warning to Parent’s from Top Neuroscientist. In the article, she was quoted as saying, “My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing [sic] the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment… I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized [sic] and easier screen dialogues…” She went on to say that beyond concerns regarding large scale emotional and social implications, widespread media was preventing many children from experiencing the “eureka” state most available during periods of silence and reflection. Anthropologist and author Stephen Schwartz later described the mysterious way this occurs. He noted that the “the ‘eureka experience’… has long been associated with radical, sudden breakthroughs and discoveries in science, is the direct experience of nonlocal awareness, in which one suddenly becomes aware of the infinitude of human consciousness in space and time.” “This experience is often described as an epiphany…” said Schwartz. The article set off a firestorm. Many parents and professionals lauded Dr. Greenfield’s candid warning. Critics accused her of using outlandish scare tactics and bad science.
But the concern was not a new one. For years, scientists, such as Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, had been raising similar concerns. They pointed to functional magnetic imagery (fMRI) research, which reveals how the brain activates our emotions. They noted that higher-order emotions, such as admiration and compassion, take approximately six to eight seconds to register. More basic emotions, such as fear and immediate gratification, are experienced almost immediately. The findings were critical. “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations,” Damasio noted, “We need to allow for adequate time and reflection.” He and colleagues worried, “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality… We actually separate the good from the bad in great part thanks to the feeling of admiration. It’s a deep physiological reaction that’s very important to define our humanity.”
Beneath all of the controversy, one thing is difficult to deny. As one recent listserv member put it, modern technology and media are “selling drama.” Not all drama is bad. Some is incredibly moving and poignant. Some can seem rather silly and diversionary. But no matter what kind of drama the current technological culture is marketing, it generally evokes strong emotion. With emotion comes much processing and time invested, both in person and spirit, often away from other activities of the day. Beyond the obvious examples that movies, television, and video games provide, a simple case-in-point is the relationship status option function on most of the social networking sites. Facebook options include the following: Single, Engaged, Married, It’s Complicated, Open Relationship, Widowed, Separated, Divorced, Civil Union, Domestic Partnership. The moment a person’s status changes, it instantly shows up on each friend’s news feed regardless of level of affiliation. Within hours and days, it potentially sets off a wave of phone calls, texts, tweets, etc… all announcing and prognosticating about the details behind Susan’s status change from committed to single. We never knew our lives were so important to many that we hardly ever see. Even celebrities, many of which complain that the tabloids egregiously invade their privacy, are now tweeting to the general public that they are laying in bed watching television before heading out for a morning stroll. Opinions may vary dramatically about the impact of technology. Few can question the fact that we have become a society addicted to drama.
Another issue embedded with these concerns focuses on technology’s impact on the basic psychological processes of our youth. For years, it has been widely accepted (based on the original work of Dr. Erik Erikson) that the primary stage of psychosocial development for teens was one of identity versus role confusion. It is critical that adolescents develop a sense of their personal identity through a process of exploration and emerging independence. The teenage years are not typically as tumultuous as often advertised. But they remain a time of much searching and challenges. The first challenge generally centers on “fitting in.”
Current research has generally not been kind when it comes to illustrating how technology seems to impact this process. In the case of social media, it appears that few things could be more confusing than having to compare yourself to hundreds of your online “friends”. Naysayers of this view might say that it does the opposite. They might suggest it allows teens to truly experience many different perspectives so that they arrive at their true selves. But the research doesn’t support this. The more teens are exposed to social networking, the more they seem to become anxious, maladjusted, and confused about their identity. Too many faces, too many words, and too much drama often becomes, well, just too much. Facebook may be a great tool to start a social revolution. But when the revolt is occurring nonstop in our teen’s minds, the outcome can be detrimental.
Beneath all of this discussion, two critical points remain. No matter what has changed over the past few thousand years, certain core factors have always been associated with a youth’s ability to succeed in adulthood. These include fitness, mental health, social abilities, and cognition/achievement. Regardless of the time and place, these attributes remain as the ultimate determining factors about whether a population will flourish or languish.
Over the past thirty years, objective research has generally uncovered some sobering statistics. Let me first be clear. These concerns cannot be solely attributed to the rise of media and technology. There are many factors that are likely associated with these trends. But, in 1990, no state had an obesity rate of greater than 19 percent. By 2010, no state had an obesity rate of less than 20 percent. In the United States, being overweight has become the “new normal.” Previous articles have indicated that the obesity trends are even worse for youth. A recent meta-analysis of 131 samples including greater than 76,000 high school and college students found that mental health has deteriorated in almost every major area over the past eighty years. Indicators have revealed that social abilities have plummeted since the 1970’s even as “community connectedness” has improved. And as was detailed in November’s article, academic scores have generally flatlined over the past thirty five years, causing our nation to go from the top-ranked country in the world to 23rd overall. As noted prior, recent reviews have not shown clear, widespread support that billions of dollars spent on cutting edge technology is making a systematic difference. In the end, all of this carries a price, whether you are a physician, psychologist, teacher, economist, or a politician. Technology should not just improve the lives of an individual. It should also provide for the public good. Otherwise, it would just imply that we are all in it for ourselves. And that certainly does not provide for a country we want to call home.
Linked In, Part V: Practical Ideas
In 1991, Dr. Michael Rich graduated from Harvard Medical School on his way to becoming the world’s first mediatrician. As a father of four, he had seen firsthand the dramatic, often negative effects that media could have on people’s lives during his twelve year career as a Hollywood filmmaker. His unlikely path has led him to center stage in hopes of helping parents and youth understand the positive and negative opportunities that media can bring.
As with Dr. Rich, our most pressing questions are practical ones. It is one thing to suggest that access to technology carries an inherent risk. But it is an altogether different topic to indicate just how this risk should be regulated and monitored within our homes and our schools. Many barriers exist to recommended change. But no barrier is justified when continued serious risk exists. It would be like saying that given our busy lifestyles, we don’t have the time to prepare healthy meals, therefore, resigning our children to be placed at risk for any condition associated with poor nutrition. Similarly, the dilemma regarding technology indicates that we have little choice but to change our lifestyles if we are to provide for the basic psychological and physical needs of our children.
The problem, of course, is that these barriers often exist in many layers. In order to truly make educated decisions regarding youth access to technology, a few things have to occur beyond an initial understanding of what drives us to immerse our youth in technology (see November series for further discussion of this). One, individual parents have to change their own patterns of consumption. This means they have to be willing to limit and responsibly use technology themselves. They also have to make a concerted decision to buy less, especially when it comes to providing technology as gifts or ongoing rewards. This is especially important when children are young. It is much easier to restrict access than revoke or limit it. Adolescents who have been used to the technology for years present more difficult (although not impossible) barriers to change. Secondly, parents (especially those of younger children) would have to work in supporting each other to make countercultural decisions. If a group of parents of children in early elementary classes made the decision to collectively delay and limit technology consumption, then theoretically the peer pressure children feel to have the devices would be less. Without regular peer pressure, technology becomes much easier to limit. The same applies for the schools within a district. For example, if all schools in a district banned mobile devices in the hallways, it would provide much less risk and worry that students will gravitate to another school in search of greater freedom.
Beyond setting good early boundaries and working together, any limitation of an endorsed cultural icon like technology requires that parents and teachers encourage other alternatives. Simply restricting without providing other options creates a more difficult scenario in maintaining goals. As youth get older, exposure to the outdoors, arts/sciences, athletics, civic activities, volunteer opportunities, leadership roles, and other activities creates a much greater likelihood that youth will not seek to challenge limitations put forth by their parents or schools. Given that technology is so widely accepted, it is also important to arm our youth with an understanding of why these limitations are being implemented. It is also critical that we teach youth ways to defuse potentially awkward situations when confronted by peers who perceive their lack of technology saturation as odd or out of date.
Finally, it is important to understand that just like nutrition and exercise, even moderate change is better than no change at all. Many parents may become overwhelmed with recommendations such as those mentioned below simply because it seems like such a far departure from the current state of operation. My attempt is not to demoralize anyone who considers that even a small degree of change may be warranted; rather, it is to try and provide the best recommendations I can based on current research and personal reflection. It is critical to understand that even a minor adjustment in one area, maintained consistently over time, can have a noticeable impact on a child. I fully realize that many will regard my recommendations below as radical and unrealistic given current trends. I will simply say that I feel that no matter what the reaction, our children always deserve the best, scientifically-driven information and advice we can give them regardless of how unpopular or uncomfortable it may be. Otherwise, my personal feeling is that we risk sacrificing their well-being in the name of many other things that are much less important.
All that being said, it seems that the following considerations are particularly important in adhering to the research-based concerns previously put forth. The focus is on limiting school-aged youth to 1-2 hours of total screen time. Between the ages of 2-5, there seems to be little justification to more than thirty minutes a day. Under the age of two, the recommendation remains to restrict screen time completely.
Mobile Devices: Despite current trends, it appears that ownership of a cell phone for non-driving youth carries more inherent risks in regards to psychological health, social development, and academic progress. For those of driving age, mobile devices have been associated with a significant increase in roadway fatalities and injuries caused by texting and talking on the phone. For those parents who still feel that their child’s security is enhanced by having a cell phone in emergencies, prepaid wireless options are available to decrease the percentage of time that an adolescent may be using the mobile device while driving. Taken together, though, no clear evidence suggests that our adolescents are safer or have benefitted from the proliferation of mobile devices in comparison to previous generations. The current research supports that not providing a personal mobile device in high school, or at least grade school, is the best recommendation.
Television/Movies: The most important considerations regarding television revolve around placement, time, and content of programming. All advocacy bodies unanimously state that having a television in the bedroom places youth at higher risk for sleep problems, consumption of inappropriate content, and health issues. Similarly, it appears that there is no justification for television viewing beyond 1-2 hours per day at most (depending on other media consumption) except in isolated circumstances (e.g., as a occasional reward, family activity in watching a movie). Certain television programs can be used in moderation, especially for at-risk youth; however, it is important to note that gains are often greater with human interaction. Content, especially that of a violent and sexually-laden nature, should be particularly restricted, even if it means by working to mute (or turn off commercials) during certain programs, such as televised professional sports. Overall, parents should consider that even a twenty-five percent reduction of the total number of images/language in a youth’s lifetime carries undoubted (even if unrealized) benefits. Inappropriate or difficult content (e.g., story of a death on the news) should be discussed further taking into account a child’s developmental level.
Gaming: Research has indicated that gaming carries numerous risks with limited potential benefits (exceptions being instruction of certain procedural or visual-spatial skills). The most immediate is exposure to violence and sexual behaviors that prime the individual to act in this way. Certain games may not carry an inherent risk (if time restrictions are used); however, the technology of current gaming has created a virtual world that is very immediately gratifying and captivating. The biggest risk of all games appears to be a difficulty in getting children to engage in alternate activities that require greater patience, self-control, and creative thinking. The recommendation is simply to not have gaming systems at all except if used to improve an identified area of deficiency. However, if a family does have a system, content and time-played should be closely monitored by having the gaming system in a public space, not the bedroom. Gaming should not exceed one hour per day, although parents may need to gradually decrease the amount of time if youth engage in gaming at a high rate.
Internet: This technology has become a huge part of current academia and carries both clear risks and potential benefits. If used appropriately and conscientiously, it can be a wonderful tool for those in middle school and especially high school. However, given how easily youth can access inappropriate material, parents should make sure that security measures are implemented, and that any use of the internet is done in a public area within the home. It is also important that youth still become familiar with using the local library for research, and that they are taught how to recognize the best ways to search reputable material online. Prior to middle school, internet should be used sparingly and primarily for educational reasons with an adult present to monitor.
Social Media: A review of current studies again indicates that potential risks for youth significantly outnumber possible benefits, with the exception of its possible use in older high school students for civic activities. No empirical support exists for a grade school student, and for that matter most high school students, to have a personal social media account in light of encouraging good psychological development. If parents have their own account, it may be appropriate for older students to use this account with permission in posting certain photos or other updates.
There is a final thought regarding this practical advice. It is to provide an option that many youth currently don’t have. Allow them to grow up without being dependent on technology for communication and leisure. Then, when they become of age, they can decide the course they will take. I am confident that any further technology training they might need will be manageable at this point if they have acquired the core skills needed for success. It is a wonderful gift that I and others were given, courtesy of my parents, and to a large extent, of our generation. Personally speaking, it has allowed me to exist to this day without a mobile device, a car (I largely commute to work by cycling, running, or busing as part of a one-car family), cable television, social media, and video games. It also has created a great appreciation for how technology (used strategically) can really improve my life. As the gift was given to us, my wife and I plan on giving this gift to our children although we know we face an intensely uphill battle in doing so.
Would you consider joining us?