Communication 102: Growing up Wireless

Amie Creagh, Dean of Students, recalls when Pat Gimbel (prior Dean of Admission) suggested in 1999 that Amie buy a cell phone, given the scope of her travel. Amie recalls, “The only real experience I’d had with cell phones was watching Don Johnson use one on Miami Vice. I felt part of the ‘jet set’. I also remember walking home from dorm duty one night, completely floored by the fact that I could walk down Main Street and talk to Brendan, who was on duty back in another dorm.” 1999 is only fifteen years ago, but, in terms of communication, it might as well have been the Ice Age.

A technological marvel designed to make our lives easier, the cell phone allows for constant communication and access to information twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As adults, we have discovered that this “wireless” phenomenon is a blessing and a curse. “Wired” is all our children know, and communication via texts or through other social media is their preferred form of communication. Stuart Bicknell, Coordinator of Counseling at Deerfield, believes that, “We do know that whatever technology is available at the time will influence the way in which “digital natives’ think about things. Beyond that, it’s apparently not clear yet exactly what it’s doing to developing brains.” There is a great deal of research, expert opinions, and focus group information about the impact of smart phones on communication for today’s youth. The pros are pretty straightforward: the cons are more complex and nuanced for each individual.

Quick and Efficient Communication

Smart phones allow parents to stay in touch with their children while they are at school.  Home can be in Greenfield, MA, San Francisco, CA or Hong Kong; a quick text message where parents and teens check in is a way of life, no matter where we call home.  Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all provide places to share information and keep those connections strong while away. Many students also use “Skype” and “FaceTime” to talk to friends and family, and, all of a sudden, no one feels that far away. Deerfield students can also easily communicate with coaches and teachers online. In terms of safety, Amie Creagh says that “it is much easier and efficient to use cell phones to communicate with students for school-wide texts to alert students to important messages and weather alerts.”

When teens communicate with each other, text messages allow them to think through what they might say and give a thoughtful response because they do not have to reply right away. A text message, as opposed to a conversation in person, provides safety and a little distance, and for some, can be a less impulsive way to communicate.

Integrity

Stuart Bicknell reports that social media experts have addressed the student body at Deerfield, “typically focusing on cyber-bullying and the fact that whatever you put out there, regardless of intention, is irretrievable. For some students, the messages sink in. Some find it irritating. Others nod and recklessly carry on.” The short-lived and unfortunate experience of Yik Yak at Deerfield this past spring illustrates the potential hazards rooted in anonymous communication,  “a tough road to navigate gracefully when you’re in high school,” according to Amie Creagh. Stuart senses that there is no panacea. “Parents talk about this phenomenon with their children. Schools talk about it with their students. That’s all necessary–but perhaps not sufficient. I like the fact that you’re addressing this with parents as it begins at home at ever-earlier ages. Parents are in the best position to model attending behaviors.”

Information and Creativity

Smart phones are mobile computers where information is a few keystrokes away. Information possibilities are endless, and teens are facile at finding what they need, often within seconds. Between homework assignments posted on DA’s Moodle network, a quick Google search or a text to a friend late at night about an assignment, students can’t really use the old excuse, “I could not find that information.”  Students also keep their schedules on their phones, which have improved attentiveness to their busy days and appointments with built-in reminders. For those who seek creativity, the world is their oyster. I am sure there are Deerfield students dreaming of creating that “App” that could make them millions, if they did not have that English paper due in the morning. 

Connectivity

Danah Boyd, in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, shares a universal truth: “Teens continue to occupy an awkward position between childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence. They are struggling to carve out an identity that is not defined solely by family ties.”(p.17) It is probably safe to say that we struggled with the same issues when we were teenagers thirty and forty years ago.  If we “hung out” on the street corner, at the Mall and other public places, our teenagers “hang out” with their friends on Facebook, send text messages, and go online to other social media websites.

While teenagers today have come of age surrounded and (some might say), bombarded by social media, it is their reality and their “connection” to their phone is that much more complicated than we understand.  The advantage and convenience of smart phones is relatively straightforward.  When the conversation moves to some of the negative aspects of technology, the discussion and surrounding issues become more complicated and can be problematic for teens.

Perpetually Turned On

Stuart Bicknell wrote a reflection last year about the pace of school life that addresses one of the pitfalls of technology today. “Our students today are perpetually turned on, with or without wires. They are chronically tech distracted, accessing a waterfall of information in microseconds. They imagine themselves to be adept multi-taskers despite the fact that prominent researchers have repeatedly shown that our brains don’t work that way. One writer on the topic concluded that multi-tasking is nothing more than “continuous partial attention.” So our students are increasingly scattered, inattentive, and unaccustomed to reflection and healthy relaxation.” Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, in The App Generation, refer to research that identifies a number of benefits that accrue when a brain is at rest (relatively speaking) and focused inward.  The downtime appears to play a restorative role, promoting feelings of well being, and ultimately, helping individuals to focus their attention more effectively when it’s needed. Daydreaming, wandering and wondering have positive facets.” (p.74) A simple way to look at it: a little time to focus on being versus doing.  A teen’s constant, although virtual, connection does not allow for time and space to think about their thoughts and desires.

Lost Art of Conversation

Remember when the phone rang at home ten years ago and anyone over the age of three would cry,  “I’ll get it,” or “my turn?”  Nowadays, it is more likely that teens will avoid answering the phone altogether. Parents often say, ” Can you see who it is?” and maybe even,  “Don’t pick up, they will leave a message and I will call them back later.”  What has happened to spontaneous conversation?  Catherine Steiner-Adair reports in The Big Disconnect, “As our kids have grown accustomed to the detached and superficial quality of texting and online messaging, they have become averse to spontaneous conversation. They’d rather avoid it: with you, with their friends, with anyone…A conversation by phone or in person feels too risky. You can never be sure what the person is going to say, and the immediacy of it puts you on the spot to respond. With texting, the other person can’t see your emotional response so you are not nearly as vulnerable as in a live conversation. You can think before you text or not at all.” (p 61) Gardner and Davis report similar focus group findings where teens today feel it is less intrusive and safer to send a text rather than to call someone. It appears that teens today are more and more connected.  When we really think about it, however, they are less and less connected. The constant buzz of text messages and app alerts draws their attentions away from in-person conversations. In addition, teens might say things in a text that they would not say to someone in person standing next to them, looking them in the eye, reading their body language and interacting in the moment. As we have probably experienced with our own children, text messages can often be misinterpreted. Psychologists recommend that teens pick up the phone and talk through an issue to resolve text message conflicts.

Vampire in the House

A recent article in the New York Times (July 3, 2014) addresses a teen phenomenon called “vamping” where teens document and forward their late-night and sometimes all-night selfies on Instagram from bed. Danah Boyd suggests that there are two reasons for this activity. “First, teens want to connect and the quiet of nighttime allows for more personal and private conversations. Second, their pressured lives are over-scheduled and they have less time to relax and do what they want.” They hang out with their friends at the end of their very long days. There may also be some peer pressure on teens to respond right away when they receive a text, no matter what time it is. Parents and researchers acknowledge that teens need more sleep. The NYT article refers to a recent National Sleep Foundation poll that reports that more than 50% of teenagers aged 15-17 sleep approximately seven hours per night, an hour and a half less than the suggested minimum. Tech-connected teens “vamping” late at night are most likely sleeping even less than seven hours a night.

The Real Me

Amie Creagh sees a growing anxiety about being disconnected or even appearing disconnected. “Kids have told me that they’ve pretended to talk on their cell phones to avoid looking like they’re walking alone somewhere. Ugh.” Kristin Loftus, Peer Counseling Supervisor, talks about the identity battle teens are faced with each day when they walk out of the dorm, walk into a classroom or onto the fields. “Do I fit in?” “How many ‘likes’ did my last Instagram receive?” or “How many friends do I have on Facebook?” These are a few of the subconscious questions our teens wrestle with each day. In addition to the resume they need to build for college, they must create an online resume to fit it.  As Kristin says, “they often create something online that is ‘better’ than who they are.” There is pressure to be popular, look good, have lots of friends and do something fabulous often enough to Instagram in order to be noticed, valued and to fit in. As Amie Creagh observes, “You can be a persona rather than a person if you do not interact one-on-one in real time.”  It all sounds exhausting.

Distracted

The iPhone buzzes with text message alerts while the blank page of the English paper due tomorrow sits there on the computer screen. “What’s the harm to check Facebook and Instagram one more time?” According to everyone, except our teens, the constant distraction of text messages and social media is real. They think they are “multi-tasking” but are far less efficient with the work they need to do. In a NYT article (November 21, 2010), Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, the author reports that while students have always faced distractions and time-wasters, the constant stream and stimuli of cell phones and computers pose a “profound challenge to focusing and learning. Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks–and less able to sustain attention and focus.” In simpler terms, teens have to constantly decide if they will store vocabulary or maybe choose the more stimulating information just viewed online.

Conclusion

Our teens are bombarded with messages and pictures 24 hours a day. Checking their phones is the last thing teens do before they go to bed and it is the first thing they do when they wake up. It can be difficult and maybe even overwhelming to process it all everyday. Stuart Bicknell is concerned that “there is either no down time, or, and this may be more compelling an argument, social networking and internet surfing is regarded as their down time. You and I are not, as they say, “native speakers” in this tech land. It remains to be seen how our children, who are so apparently fluent in the language of all things tech, are integrating this wired/wireless, constantly turned on flood of buzz. It becomes a lifestyle where you’re damned if you do (stress from over stimulation and constant arousal–and the negative impact on sleep) and damned if you don’t (can’t stand not having access to it all just in case…). Frankly, as parents hustling to keep up, I don’t think we do a great job of modeling healthy relaxation and reflection. We’re also regularly checking emails and responding to cell phone rings and vibrations. On any given Parents Weekend at Deerfield, I’m struck by the number of parents I see on their cell phones.”

How can we help our often tired, distracted and wired children? Stuart Bicknell thinks that if we can have a conversation with our children and become aware of our own behaviors, that is a start in the right direction. Our children will be back at school again in a few weeks, but, as we have heard countless times before, “it begins at home.” While it is “easier said than done,” it is certainly worth some discussion at home this summer.

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