Teens and Technology

I recently read a blog post on Big Think entitled, “When Does Teen Mobile Usage Become an Addiction?  How to Mitigate Excessive Use” and it brought up some points I’ve been hearing either for quite some time or have recently been hearing around the digital water cooler.

There have been expert opinions tossed around, parent opinions, and teen opinions; however, I’ve found the teacher opinions to be a bit underrepresented in the conversation.  I think teachers have a perspective that needs to be acknowledged and considered when parents and lawmakers are making decisions regarding teen “addiction” to their mobile devices.

The first point the article made was the definition of an addiction.  It has become common for people to causally throw the word “addiction” around, for example, “I’m addicted to Castle.” or “I’m so addicted to diet Pepsi.”  Are we really addicted to it, or are we just using the word “addicted” to mean “really like something”.  An addiction is, “something that interferes with you living your life”.

Some examples [of addiction] include the following: inability to keep a job because of the addiction; harmed and/or lost relationships as a result of lying to justify the chosen addiction; [and] positive growth such as staying healthy, creating healthy relationships, and progressing in life are all made secondary to the habit.  So when it comes to your teen’s “addiction” to their cell phone, it probably isn’t a true addiction, per se.

If an electronic device is severely harming your life, then there is cause for concern and drastic measures.  If the student has been fired from her part-time job at the local grocery store because she can’t put her phone away when asked repeatedly, that’s a problem.  However, if she’s still doing all her homework and performing well in school, yet she picks up her phone in the middle of dinner to check a message when her phone just chirped, this is a different problem entirely.  There is a difference between rude behavior and addiction.

Respect Conversations With Others: Texting and tweeting shouldn’t come between real human contact, thus being distracted by a phone can harm relationships.

You should always put “real human contact”, as in physical, person-to-person contact, above texting and tweeting.  However, texting and tweeting allow you to open up your social circle to access people you may not otherwise be able to access.  It allows you to multitask.  Perhaps you don’t have the time to sit down and spend two hours visiting with someone.  But, you are able to work at your computer (or cook dinner, or do laundry, other household chores, etc.) and talk via text message…this human interaction is better than none at all.  I’ve spent time person-to-person with someone and left feeling like I’ve wasted my time and that we could have just talked via messaging or by phone.   In other words, before you disregard texting and tweeting for real human contact, examine who are you are talking with, what are you talking about, and how much time you have available.  Before you yell at your teen to get off her phone, be sure to ask if she’s being productive first.  She could be tweeting me, her teacher, with a question about tonight’s homework.

Never use the phone in the car, especially while driving: This is a given, but distracted driving is one of the leading causes of accidents and deaths on the roadway. If your teen learns not to use the phone in the car, a lot of tragedy can be avoided.

As an English teacher, my only issues are with the way these sentences are worded.  If you are the driver, you should never use your phone to check text messages, emails, or the like.  Your eyes should never be taken off the road.  However, if you don’t know where you are going and you can set your phone up before you put your car in drive with talking directions on how to get you to where you are going and then put your phone where you can hear it but don’t touch it, you should do this.  Why?  Because how much more distracted are you by looking down at the printed directions or map?  A bit more.  Use the phone to reduce distractions, not create more.  Oh, and again with the wording…never use it in the car?  If you’re the passenger, first try to use your phone to assist the driver in reducing any problems, after that, you can use your phone…just don’t distract the driver by telling him to look at this cute cat video you just found.

Learn To Recognize Bad Habits: One reason teens turn to smart phones is boredom, causing this behavior to become a habit. Realizing this can help your teen resist checking their phone out of habit.

I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have some sort of habit they do when they’re bored.  Some people bite their fingernails.  Some pick their nose.  Some teens have engaged in activities that have created children.  Some people check their phone and read a few articles.  I’d opt for the reading articles.  Reading is reading.  Some people just aren’t the type to grab a book, sit down and read for two hours.  I am; however, I rarely have the time to.  Some people read in their spare moments.  I do this frequently.

Use a Bucket to Enforce No-Phone Family Time: One effective way is to get a bucket and have everyone place their deactivated devices inside it during family time (meal times, relative visits, board game nights, etc.). Not only will this help to teach your teens about phone etiquette, but it will also allow you to set an example by abstaining from your own phone usage.

I think this is a great idea…except you shouldn’t deactivate/turn off the devices.  Why?  With more and more people eliminating their house phone in favor of cell phones, what happens when an emergency arises?  You may be eating dinner, but what if someone is trying to contact you?  (My mom used to do this about 4-5 years ago, turned her phone off unless she needed to make a phone call…didn’t work well when I needed to call her). What if your teen’s classmate forgot to write the homework down and her parents have told them to text their friend from the class to get the homework, and your teen’s phone is off?  Phones are two-way communication devices.  Remember if you turn it off, you are restricting access to you.  If someone is relying on you, you are now penalizing them.  This goes for parents too; setting an example is great, but don’t let it come at the cost of your job.  Make sure you’re not the one on-call that night.  An alternative can be to leave your device on, but in the other room so that you’re not checking it constantly, but you can hear it if it rings.

Consider Pre-Paid Phones Instead of Prohibition: For habitual violators, you could consider using a pre-paid plan instead of instituting outright phone prohibition. That way your teen still gets the opportunity to exercise discipline and learn to ration their phone usage. And if they fail to do this, the phone will become a useless brick until you choose to add more time and data. Thus, a logical set of consequences will result from their overusing the phone.

This is a great alternative idea.  Prohibition or taking a device away can cause more harm than you think.  Let me give you an example.  Your teen spends too much time on social media sites.  You feel it is excessive and have given ample warnings about consequences.  Your teen may have said it was school-related, but you weren’t buying it.  So, you decide to take away your teen’s laptop for the week.  The same laptop that he brings to school every day.  The same laptop he uses for working on homework.  You tell him that he can use the general home computer where you can watch him, if he “really needs it”.  You think you’ve done a good job.  In fact, you’ve punished his grade.  What you didn’t know was that he needed his laptop in school that week for writing a paper.  His teacher was giving them class time to work on the paper and without the laptop (he planned to have), he’ll lose participation points.  Or, perhaps he was working on a group project in which all his part of the work was saved on the hard drive.  Or, the most important thing, his teacher was relying on him to bring his laptop because there weren’t enough laptops in the laptop carts for class use and your son popped up and said, “no worries, I can bring my own”.  Now his teacher will have to figure out where to find another computer, at the last-minute, for him to use.

Electronic devices are not just for fun.  Many people use them for entertainment, but many people use them also for work/school work.  Restricting the access to these devices will do you or your student no benefit…unless you have done your “homework” to ensure your student will not be penalized.  If you feel that restricting access to a particular technology is necessary because the student is abusing it, and the student didn’t pay for it in the first place, as a parent, you have that right.  However, do not make the situation into a bigger issue.  Email your student’s teachers to inform them that your child has been restricted from the use of a device or that your child only can use the internet for two hours a night to be sure you and the teacher can work out something that will allow the student to not be penalized far beyond what you intended.  Additionally, arming yourself with information from your student’s teacher will let you know if your student really does have a paper due Friday…or if he is just pulling your leg to weasel his computer back.

In summary: phones, laptops, tablets, computers, etc. are all two-way devices that can be used for leisure, but many teens use them to work. Teaching responsible use of technology instead of outright prohibition is imperative because as a teacher, I rely on my students and their technology.  If a student says he will bring his laptop tomorrow…I’m expecting him to bring his laptop.


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