Smartphones . . . they have quickly become an unquestioned and pervasive extension of the countless new technologies that have changed our world exponentially over the past two decades. In a recent conversation with a Board member at my school, I appreciated his comparison of our age to that of the late 1800’s when American life changed forever with the introduction of electricity. In his words, “Electricity touched everything; in the same way today, technology touches everything.” We are directly and constantly connected to information and to others, making many daily tasks and interactions easier. Truly, it is an exciting epoch in which to be alive; as an adult, it is an equally humbling charge to shepherd the next generation from childhood to adulthood in an age so vastly different than the one in which we were raised.
Candidly, I am burdened by the weight of this responsibility - we all feel it as parents and educators of kids growing up in the 21st century. This burden is by no means new for me, having journeyed over the years with many adolescents left shaken by deleterious online experiences. Accordingly, I have become increasingly more aware, and therefore more concerned, about the currently unclear long-term impact of unstructured internet access during the middle school years, particularly in the form of smartphones.
I don’t consider myself an alarmist, and I ask that you hear me out here. I recognize that adults’ role in kids’ lives is to equip them with skills and wisdom to navigate the complexities of the society they inhabit. I certainly understand that we cannot shelter our kids from the ‘real world’ forever and that they must learn to confidently confront inevitable challenges along their paths. Nonetheless, I often wonder if (and honestly doubt) we, as adults, are collectively doing enough to protect and equip our young people in this uncharted digital frontier. Even more importantly, in what ways do we as adults model “human flourishing” for young people in a digital age?
Human Flourishing and the Divided Self
Before I dive into a potentially predictable diatribe about the ills of smartphones, I think it’s important to start with the end in mind. What role does the smartphone play in promoting human flourishing? I ask because the hope of any new technology is that it will somehow improve the human experience. We are surrounded today by many technologies that make human survival on Planet Earth easier, affording us more time to make meaning of our lives and relate more deeply to one another. Cars and coffee makers, computers and ovens, GPS and artificial intelligence . . . We have more time to slow down and appreciate beauty and goodness in our daily lives, and to do so with intention. But do we?
Aristotle discussed the ideal of “eudaimonia”, a Greek word commonly translated as “human flourishing.” In asking the question “What is eudaimonia?” Aristotle asks in essence, “What are the best activities of which man is capable?” He held up virtues as desirable middle ground between vices of deficiency (too little of something) and excess (too much of something).
Does 21st century society and its current trajectory of constant and ever-increasing connectedness foster “the best activities of which man is capable?” In a February 2018 article in The Atlantic entitled, “The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone”, Marcel O’Gorman asserts that “humans are struggling to adapt to the most captivating prosthesis they have ever invented.”
And that’s really what we’ve allowed smartphones to become: an artificial body part whose constant presence in our daily lives goes unquestioned. As a smartphone owner myself, I’ve become increasingly more dubious that its constant presence in my life inspires me to engage in “the best activities” of which I am capable, particularly as a father and a husband. I have difficulty being fully present anywhere. I check the time, the weather, my email any free moment I have. I am more easily distracted than ever before, meaning that opportunities to reflect or even simply to think are hijacked by trivial notifications or a looming anxiety that there may be information “out there” that I’m currently missing. Numerous studies have highlighted the fact that the average smartphone owner checks his or her phone over 100 times per day, 8-10 times an hour . . . YIKES!
Candidly, I have ambitious hopes about the quality time I spend with students, family, and friends, opportunities for rich connection and meaningful memories. I believe it is part of our role as adults to create these reference points of “the good life” for our kids, where being fully present with others is celebrated, where thoughtful conversation and focused attendance to the moment is elevated. Too easily, smartphones pull us out of the moment: in class, in meetings, in cars, in restaurants, and even in our very own living rooms.
In an address to students earlier this year about my school's Responsible Use of Technology policy, we focused the conversation less on specific “do’s and don’ts on devices” and much more on our collective tendency toward the “divided self”, where we struggle to be fully present anywhere and we live our lives differently online than we do in person. As digital natives, our kids don’t easily recognize this divide; they don’t know life any differently. We also emphasized the seamless nature of integrity . . . in all contexts, even online, and how challenging this can be. Have middle schoolers developed the strength of character necessary to make optimal choices in the face of the fire hose of messages and information they receive moment by moment?
Group Texts, Snapchat, Pornography and Middle School
Do the benefits of smartphones outweigh the developmental risks for middle schoolers?
Though our middle schoolers’ internet access is filtered and protected in our homes and at school, many adolescents I encounter have smartphone plans which include unlimited 4G internet connections wherever they are. Even without a 4G plan, students are able to receive photos, videos, memes (and the list goes on) from friends in the form of text messages. Add social media to the equation, and middle schoolers find themselves in a very vulnerable, and sometimes dangerous place developmentally.
Group Texts: Most students have at least a few group text conversations they engage in regularly, often with large numbers of people in each one (i.e. imagine 40 kids adding their two cents in any given conversation). Throughout the day, students phones are constantly buzzing with each and every reply to the larger conversation, amounting to a very disruptive presence in the mental and emotional lives of our kids, whether in school or out. Though my school requires phones to be away during the school day (unless given permission briefly by a teacher), passing periods, restroom breaks, and free moments are times when students tend to discreetly “catch up” on all that they’ve missed online. We are currently in conversations about tightening our existing cell phone policy during the academic day.
Shapchat, Instagram, etc.: In short, the adolescent’s insecurity and need for approval does not mix well with the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” nature of social media. Moreover, the acronym “FOMO” has been added to our cultural dialect, describing an increasingly common phenomenon - fear-of-missing-out. FOMO is more formally described as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.” According to TIME magazine, three quarters of young adults in a study reported they experienced the phenomenon. If we as adults struggle with these insecurities in our consumption and use of social media, how much more so do middle schoolers?
Pornography: Middle schoolers with smartphones have instant and direct access to pornography. Though we expect and hope for the best from them, we know that adolescents already struggle with impulse control and are known for risk-taking behaviors. Simultaneously, they are innately curious to make sense of the world they inhabit. Unfortunately, repeated exposure to pornography during the critical habit-forming years of early adolescence impacts their relationships, both now and in the future. A non-profit organization called Fight the New Drug has created some helpful talking points for parents and educators, focusing on the ways that pornography affects our brain, our relationships, and our society.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Will our kids eventually need to learn how to independently possess the self control to use smartphones optimally? Yes, of course. My question is when and how do adults structure that learning process well? Society has already determined ages of readiness for other activities requiring a certain level of self-control: 16 years of age for driving; 21 for drinking. According to a 2016 study conducted by Influence Central, the average age of students receiving their first smartphone is 10.3 years of age.
Yes, the drawbacks and dangers of smartphones at too young an age are much less immediately visible than those of driving a car or drinking alcohol. However, I would like to respectfully assert that society’s current norms around middle schoolers and smartphones are short-sighted. Will we look back in 20 years and wish we had created better boundaries for our kids during adolescence? In the 1960s, smoking was widely accepted: an estimated 42% of Americans were regular smokers. That percentage has dropped precipitously over the past 50 years (~17% today) due to the knowledge we now have about the long-term effects to people’s health. I recognize that this may not be the most apt comparison, but it is a good reminder that, throughout history, countless societal norms have been hastily adopted and been proven short-sighted.
Whether your child currently has a smartphone or not, here are a few suggestions that parents may consider to inspire collective “eudaimonia” in the life of their family:
- Begin with a family conversation: With all parties present, begin a conversation around a vision for “family flourishing” amidst the busyness of life.
- Model “human flourishing” in your own life: As adults, we can create common expectations around device-free time spent together as families. Take a family walk, play a board game, hang out in the living room and read together, cook a delicious meal, listen to good music, do some yard work together, have friends over for dinner . . . Ultimately, show kids that smartphones and other technology can be used for good on our terms, that we need not be enslaved to them.
- As a family, commit to keeping devices out of bedrooms: This is helpful in terms of accountability for young people, but also allows them to wind down earlier in the evening.
- Turn off the WiFi at a certain time each night: it’s less of a temptation if it’s an impossibility
- Create a communal device-docking center in your house, preferably a central location: This frees everyone to intentionally go “off the grid” at home for a bit each day
- Be gracious with yourself and your kids: We’re all in this together, trying hard to figure out how to parent well in 2018. The burden is heavy at times, but patience and grace will go a long way in our invaluable roles as parents and educators.
At my school, we are in ongoing conversations around how we can hone our current policies to optimally support our middle schoolers in the aforementioned challenges they face. This is an important, and ongoing, conversation.