OPINION: In my last column I shared the story of four 18 year olds who spent 20 days tramping through the Tasman Wilderness Area.
Jake talked about how nice it was being away from technology. “Your head goes up, you look around and notice more.” He realised how much time he wasted on technology in town.
I’m one of many who have increasing concerns about the impact of teenagers spending too much time on screens, especially on social media and gaming sites. We’re raising a generation with a high proportion of lonely, anxious, depressed and disconnected young people.
As a high school teacher I’m facing the first generation of students who have grown up fully immersed in a world of highly addictive (and portable) technology. Students are encouraged to bring their own devices to most schools in New Zealand and teachers are finding this increasingly difficult to manage.
* Digital devices: A health risk that’s hard to switch off
* Students in a class of their own as they prepare for an epic trek into the wild
* New study shows teenagers who spend less time in front of screens are happier
It’s causing controversy in education. Is it useful in learning? Is it detrimental? How can we best manage it? I feel conflicted because it’s important to have digital literacy, yet the behaviour I see is too alarming to ignore. I think we need to actively teach and encourage critical thinking around the use of technology.
Initially I took a laid-back approach to managing smartphones in class, rationalising that we live in a world of screens and young people need to learn to self-manage. I quickly realised they’re unable to.
Whenever there’s a spare five seconds, the first thing they do is reach into their pockets for their phones. I started taking phones off them as they came into class. As soon as they walk out the door, the phones come straight out of their pockets.
One of my students dropped out of school largely as a result of his addiction to Fortnite, with an inability to manage himself. He was hugely sleep-deprived and disconnected from his peers. There’s a corridor in school that I call the “robot hallway.” You walk down it and literally every teenage boy is sitting with his head in a screen.
There’s almost no laughter or chatter, just robots.
This fuels my motivation to get young people into the outdoors. Being detached from screens gives us a chance to experience life in a different way, and makes us look at our technology dependence in town with fresh eyes.
But even in the outdoors, technology can find a way to creep in. Walking along a ridge near Kiwi Saddle in Kahurangi National Park, I heard,”Oh my god, I have to video this, my friends are never going to believe how windy it is.”
Many young people are now so preoccupied with sharing their adventures that they forget to enjoy the moment for what it is.
Standing outside the entrance to Nettlebed Cave one of my students said, “Oh I could never go in there, I get scared enough going caving in Fortnite!” On almost every trip I hear,”Do it for the gram.” I’ve known several students to pay friends to keep their Snapchat streaks going while they’re in the bush away from wifi!
I feel lucky that I snuck through childhood and adolescence with very little technology. I have memories of playing at friends’ places and when all the kids were glued to the TV I would ring up my mum and ask to be picked up. We had no TV until I was 8 and even after that, and the whole way through my teens, I hardly ever watched anything.
I got a Facebook account when I was 18 but didn’t get a smartphone for several years. I remember calling my mum (in Albania at the time) on my brick Nokia, while lost in the North Island in my early twenties.
“Can you do me a favour. Go onto Google maps and type in this address. Can you give me directions?” It happened a couple of times and I started thinking that a Google Maps app would be useful.
The first iPhone came out in 2007 and was essentially an iPod that made phone calls and had a few other functionalities. In the early days social media was a novelty, something we would log onto occasionally. There was no store full of apps designed to be as addictive as possible.
Companies like Facebook transformed the social media experience to massively increase engagement with their services. Now we have short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that have been designed to be as addictive as possible.
There’s a constant incoming stream of social approval indicators, such as ‘like’ buttons, photo tags and retweets on Twitter. The intermittent way it does this has been designed to hijack our dopamine system. This was hugely profitable for companies like Facebook. And it totally changed our relationships with our phones. They went from being devices of convenience to constant companions.
Recently I came across a podcast interview with author David Gillespie. He talks about the differences between the teenage and adult brains and why certain technology is much more damaging for adolescents. During puberty the human brain is more open to reward which turns into addiction.
“Once you’re addicted to one thing, there’s a gateway effect that makes it easier for you to become addicted to something else,” he says.
It’s like a slot machine in your pocket. Boys will usually get more addicted to gaming, whereas girls tend to get more addicted to social media. These have been specifically designed to target the differences in hormonal makeup. I’ve enjoyed reading David’s book Teen Brain: why screens are making your teenager depressed, anxious and prone to lifelong addictive illnesses – and how to stop it now.
The more we use their apps, the more money a company makes. Stanford University in San Francisco has a persuasive technology lab where people learn the latest methods for keeping users’ attention for longer. In Silicon Valley many software engineers began to feel uncomfortable about this and spoke out. Interestingly, many of them are now sending their kids to screen-free schools.
Getting out into nature can help us find balance in this new age of screens. I’ve experienced the benefits myself and I’m constantly seeing them in my students. I’ve often spent a month at a time in the outdoors with groups of around 10 young people. The overwhelming feedback is that “it just feels better.”
They say they are less anxious and feel more present and at peace with themselves and the uncertainties ahead in life. These are the same young people who admitted that they deleted social media posts that didn’t receive a certain number of likes within a certain number of hours.
They tell me they’ve never had such good conversations as with their group in the wilderness – and they love it.