Does technology make teenagers into zombies?

Recently, John Lawrence (instructional technology over at Chaminade College Prep High School) passed my information along to a student there who was looking for a teacher’s perspective on technology and teens.  The student’s questions and my answers are below.  If you have any additional thoughts, or have some corrections to offer, please add them in the comments.

1. Do you think that technology has more of a positive or negative effect on the youth? Why?

I think the most appropriate answer must be “it depends.” To the degree that it connects young people to ideas, world views, and those they care about or are interested in, it’s great. To the degree that a particular young person may choose to use it in ways that isolate or distract him, it can be a detriment to his development. In my opinion, if we come to technology with an idea of what we want to productively accomplish by using it, we win. If, instead, we come to technology with a desire for entertainment, self-fulfillment, or escape, we run the risk that the technology may control us rather than the other way round. I think this concept applies to any type of technology, whether we are talking about a guy’s shop full of power tools, a lady’s collection of romance novels, or a teenager’s use of the Internet.

2. In you opinion, why do teens love their cell phones and other technology more than spending time with family?

I’m not sure teens love their cell phones. I think those who “love their cell phones” actually love something their cell phones give them. For some, cell phones give them instant connection to their peer group. Part of the adolescent journey is defining ourselves within one crowd and in opposition to another. Teens have been doing this through peer interaction for generations. Cell phones just add an immediacy to this dynamic that is a powerful pull away from the “established” identity tied to the family. If I already know where I stand as a “son”, I don’t have to think about that. What I really wonder about is where I stand as a … fill in the blank. That’s a big question, and a big reason to be attached to a peer group through one’s cell phone.

3. How do you think that technology can be a good thing?

As I mentioned earlier, technology can be a great connector. It ties us into conversations happening around the world, and allows us to be participants in those conversations, not merely passive consumers. It allows us to archive and analyze our experiences in new ways, ways that can bring patterns to light that we never imagined were there. Athletes use digital video to hone their form, companies use tweets to re-evaluate their marketing strategy, students use tablets to record lectures and review their notes, and the list goes on. Advanced technology coupled with user-generated content has created a vast ocean of information that is growing exponentially. We as a human community are learning together in a way we’ve never done before.

4. What are some ways you think technology can be a bad thing?

I think technology can be a bad thing as any “tool” can branded as “bad.” A hammer is just as effective a tool in creating shelter as it is in tearing it down. Technology connects. It connects moral people to those without consciences. It connects vulnerable children to images of unspeakable evil. It connects teens who feel unsure of themselves to any manner of arenas where they can escape rather than confront their doubts and fears. Ultimately, I think of technology as an amplifier of our intentions, emotions, and actions. If it is bad, it is so because we find our own faults magnified before us.

5. How do you think that technology effects the minds of teens?

That question you might better answer than I. I think a mind soaked in the connectedness of technology has a tendency to be satisfied skimming across information rather than diving into it. This bears out whether I’m thinking of an adult or teenager. I think the teen may have a more difficult time reading or thinking deeply only insofar as he has fewer reference points for the more sustained action of study than has the adult who may not have experienced the same degree of screen exposure. There’s a good body of evidence about what screen time does to children, and a growing debate over what it does to our ability to read. I don’t think that teenagers have been “zombified” by technology, but they do have a more demanding choice before them than have other generations in the past. Through technology, kids and adults have an ‘escape hatch’ from the stress that may actually produce learning. Teens have the added challenge of the innumerable other stressors that adolescence brings, so jumping for that escape might be even more tempting than at other stages of life.

6. Do you think that technology has a bigger effect on younger children than it does on teenagers?

I think it definitely has a bigger effect on children aged 2 and below. Beyond that, I haven’t seen a lot of research on degrees of impact between elementary-aged students and teenagers.

Big thanks to John for passing this opportunity my way, and to the folks at EdTechTalk, whose conversation with me last winter helped me begin to describe technology in terms of one piece of a unified experience rather than a world that operates under separate rules.

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