Thursday, August 23, 2018

Changing the Conversation about Technology: A Teenager's Attempt


A few years ago a new family moved into our school community with a young elementary son named Daniel. I noticed immediately he was wise beyond his years. Now, as a high school student he chooses to be different than his peers when it come to social media. He knows balancing is a weakness for him. I asked him to write a guest blog for me because his perspective needs to be heard by those of us teaching students. We, as educators, need to be speaking to students about using technology for human flourishing and the pitfalls of mindless surfing. This is a digital citizenship issue. Hear Daniel's words and heart on the subject:


I have an app that tells me how long I’ve spent on my phone each day, and when I first downloaded it, I was shocked by the results. It was routine for me to spend 3 hours on my phone each day, and not uncommon for that number to grow to 4 or 5 hours. What could I have been doing with that lost time? I don't even want to consider it. Before I got the app (which is called Moment and is free on the App Store), I thought that I used my phone much less than the average high schooler, and that may in fact be true. I think my peers would be as surprised as I was to learn the ugly truth: Americans with smartphones, and especially young Americans with smartphones, spend a gratuitous amount of time on their devices. Lives are being spent in rooms on beds with phones in hand. This is my generation’s life, and it is really no way to live.
What is the solution to this problem? We need to be actively discouraging overuse of personal devices. Of course, parents and educators do call on their children and students to be wary of their tech use. But the caution is tepid. Kids are often told that tech is dangerous because it gives us access to bad content, but rarely do adults tell us that the thing in our pocket is dangerous because of how much time it consumes. I wish I had been warned of that sooner. Pornography and violence is one kind of moral wrong, but I would contend that a life spent scrolling Instagram is another.
I was once hailed as “the G.O.A.T. of Instagram” (the Greatest Of All Time for those who aren’t familiar with the acronym). My posts were clever and funny and occasionally artistic. I would check my phone every minute after posting to see how many likes I had received. I came to find a small piece of my identity in my skill at the social media game and therefore put a lot of effort into my online appearance. One time, while I was curating my Instagram page and looking through others’ profiles on the family lake trip, my cousin asked me a probing question and one that I am grateful for to this day: “How much time do you spend on Instagram?” Instead of being satisfied with my half-hearted answer of “I don’t know,” he told me to check my data usage and see how much I used it. I begrudgingly opened my settings app and was embarrassed to see that Instagram took up most of my data. How could I spend so many of my waking hours on a photo sharing app? I was humiliated when the exact number was revealed to the family and I promptly deleted my page in what seemed like an erratic decision. I have never gotten my Instagram back and I have never regretted my choice.
Since that time, I have had brief flirtationships (one of the advantages of social media is the creation of words like “flirtationship”) with other social medias, most notably Snapchat and Twitter. Snapchat lasted for a matter of weeks before I realized I was slipping into my old habits. Twitter lasted for only 4 days. Thanks to my cousin, I am honest with myself about my lack of self-control where social media is concerned. More people my age should have this awareness but do not because nobody has spoken into their lives about their lack of balance. My cousin harangued me when I was the tender age of 13. I fear that it may be too late for my friends who are nearing high school graduation.
I wish other people had relatives or teachers or friends who could embarrass them enough to inspire change, and I’ve been left to wonder why more people don’t speak out against tech overuse. I believe it is because technology as a concept is a very positive thing. It has taken us to the moon, given us our sight back, increased worldwide food production, and given millions of people jobs. It connects us to the rest of the world and expands our horizons, and it certainly has a place in our homes and classrooms. But just because there are many positive aspects to the mass generalization we call “technology,” that doesn’t mean we should ignore the many places in which personal technology has come to control our lives. Encouraging your student to use Snapchat less is no threat to the scientists at NASA. Technology is not a monolith that can somehow be damaged when I cut down my phone use.
Let’s be honest about the ways in which we take advantage of the wonderful gift of technology. Most of our tech use is simply not productive. I am all in favor of people operating social media pages that promote their small business or advertise their school club. I understand that LinkedIn helps professionals and that Twitter connects leaders to the people, but we immoderately use our phones and excuse ourselves by saying that technology is a good thing that helps people. Of course it does. Now stop sending pictures of the floor to your friends on Snapchat.
Educators and parents have arguably the biggest role to play in not only helping young people spend less time on their phones and laptops, but also helping them use their time on technology well. With the guidance of several teachers, I am hoping to transition our school newspaper online this year and any time I spend on a computer to design and update the website will be, by my estimate, a very good use of time. Not only am I helping to get school journalism out to more people than we could in print, but I am also reducing paper use and increasing the amount of articles that student writers can produce. It is an example of a time when technology is beneficial, productive, and worthy of my time.
I have no illusions, however, that my aspirations for the school paper utilize the same kind of technology as I do when I’m in bed scrolling through iwastesomuchtime.com (not a typo). There are good and bad ways of using technology, and I simply want us as a society to be able to distinguish between the two and cut out the bad technology use like cancer. People my age need help with this. So I am calling on teachers, parents, friends, and relatives to direct the young people in their lives away from their overused personal accounts, where they post self-glorifying images, and towards healthy tech use, like reading articles and trying new recipes and writing papers and learning how to make kombucha. But above all, I am calling on us all to use our phones less. I don’t have any social media, so the thought that I could spend 5 hours on my phone was ludicrous. It is important to note that even if I was using my phone to read interesting things and learn about new places or ideas, I was using it too much. The first step to real change is self-knowledge, so I strongly encourage everyone to download Moment, so they at least know how big a role in their life screen time plays. I was shocked, and my shock has turned into a determination to get better.
If there’s one thing the spread of the smartphone has accomplished, it has been the complete destruction of any semblance of balance in our lives. I want others to live a more balanced life just as I want balance for myself. Smartphones have also tainted the positive aspects of technology by supplanting them with pictures of avocado toast and beach vacations. Technology can be productive and refreshing, but it can also be wasteful and soul-sucking. Let’s get better at knowing the difference.