Teenagers, personal mobile devices and social media – a reasoned approach

For many, this is a hot topic. The past decade has seen a massive increase in the availability of personal mobile devices. Over the same period, there has been a large-scale development of social media sites and apps, which are very popular amongst teenagers. (For a recent statistical summary see How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?, Evan Asano, Social Media Today, Jan 4th, 2017).

Opinion concerning the effects of the technological age on teenagers is mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, there are those who seek to shield teenagers from technology, listing increased anxiety, sleeplessness and the danger of moral corruption among reasons for their approach. On the other hand, there are those who point to benefits such as increased access to information, ease of communication and life skill development for the 21st century, in their catalogue of benefits accruing from the technological age.

Those at either extreme of the spectrum of opinion concerning teenagers and their use of personal mobile devices and social media are unlikely to change their opinion. Most, however, feel somewhat bewildered by the extraordinary range of views on this subject. Let me outline some basic tenets of what I believe to be a reasoned approach.

Both the benefits and risks associated with teenage use of personal mobile devices and social media are real. It seems to me that this represents a reasonable starting point. Personal mobile devices and social media sites are essentially tools and as such they are morally neutral. But as with most tools, when placed in human hands, they can be used for good or ill. What is important, therefore, is for us to understand the range of benefits associated with their use, whilst at the same time recognizing the dangers. The challenge with respect to teenagers then becomes that of how to help them develop boundaries that will lead to the optimum balance between the benefits that can be gained from their use set against the minimum exposure to the risks.

Boundaries need to be flexible according to the age and culture of the individual. We should never lose sight of that fact that all teenagers are individuals. Whilst we may refer to them generically as “teenagers”, who share common opportunities, concerns and challenges on account of their stage in life, they nevertheless remain individuals and what is right for one might not be right for another. Especially in the early teens, it might be necessary to have stricter boundaries whilst the teenager develops a feel for where their own boundaries should be, along with the will to establish and the capability to observe those boundaries. How personal mobile devices are to be used, which social media sites should be accessible, and which type of site or material should be considered inappropriate, will all change with the age of the user and the cultural beliefs of their family and community of origin.

Personal mobile devices and social media should be approached as any other issue affecting teenagers, not separated into an “extra serious” category of its own. It is, of course, true that the technological aspect of teenage life is one of the areas that distinguishes the experience of being a teenager today from what it may have been like for their parents or teachers when they were themselves teenagers. Whilst we should not underestimate the enormity of the shift that technological advancement has brought to society, I believe it is a mistake to invest this area with an extraordinary significance when it comes to our approach to helping teenagers navigate their way through it. Rather, our approach to helping them through this particular aspect of teenage life ought, I suggest, to be similar to the approach we take to other areas of teenage life, including matters like the development of sexuality, responsible behaviour within the family, and the management of alcohol intake. The subject under discussion will be influenced by a multitude of other areas of teenage life, each of which will also be influenced by the aspect of technology. Overall, consistency is important so as to create a unified approach to the whole of life rather than risk the creation of taboos through a disproportionate focus on one particular area.

Basic tips for parents

An article by Ana Homayoun earlier this year in the New York Times, based on a survey by Common Sense Media, suggested that 86% of teenagers claim to have received general advice about life online from their parents. Alongside this, some 30%, it has to be said, reckoned that their parents knew little or nothing about the social media apps and sites they use. However, the most striking finding was that most teenagers “still say that their parents have the biggest influence on determining what is appropriate and inappropriate online” (Homayoun).

Whilst it may not always feel like it, then, the vast majority of parents retain a powerful opportunity to influence their teenagers in the area of online activity. With that in mind, here are some basic tips.

Make “responsible use” the goal. Whenever the issue of setting boundaries arises in the context of technology, I encourage parents to make “responsible use” the goal. Any boundaries developed with the teenager ought to have as their aim the goal of promoting the teenager’s responsible use of the technological tools available to them. This approach seeks to shape behaviour in the present in such a way that it provides a firm foundation for the future.

Communication is the key – listening. Communication between parents and their teenagers is not always smooth or easy. However, clear communication is a key requirement if the teenager is to be enabled to set helpful boundaries in the realm of their personal mobile devices and use of social media. It is important to remember that good communication is two-way in its nature! Parents need to take time to listen actively to their teenagers about how it feels to be immersed in a world of technology with its 24-hour demand for their attention from social media sites. Those who thus gain an understanding of the world their teenager inhabits, and who hear the areas in which their teenager would like help in shaping boundaries, are showing themselves to be wise parents.

Communication is the key – explaining. Alongside careful listening, there needs to be patient explanation in terms of making clear the need for helpful boundaries with regard to the use of personal mobile devices and social media. If the aim of developing responsible use is kept clearly in mind, then patient explanation, as opposed to aggressive assertion, provides a reliable path towards acceptance on the part of teenagers of the need for boundaries to enhance their freedom to explore online from a position of relative safety.

Basic tips for teachers

Model responsible use within the educational process. The way technology is put to use within the classroom in pursuit of the curriculum is an important area where the responsible use of technology can be modelled for teenagers. Students can see with little effort when the use of technology provides for genuine enhancement of their education and when it is more a case of their teacher using it simply because they (the teacher) thinks it’s cool. As with all educational tools, both personal devices and social media can be used to great effect in school, but they can also be used frivolously and that is of no help to anyone.

A forum for teenage discussion. It is important that schools accommodate the need for teenage debate about the benefits and drawbacks of technological resources. Teachers can do their students a great service by allowing their classroom to become, when appropriate, a forum where debate is encouraged about aspects of the use of personal devices and social media. For many, debate provides the opportunity for the honing of personal beliefs and approaches, and in this area, as in others, schools provide an invaluable service by allowing debate to occur.

Support teenage action. A recent article in the Daily Mail Online (UK) drew attention to the emergence in some schools of an opportunity for a digital detox. Students and teachers agree on a number of days during which there will be no use of technology in school, either in class or during breaks. This could have value in several respects. It emphasizes that these technologies are tools and that human life and education can continue without them. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of the technologies by reminding participants of some of the ways that we have come to rely them for the more effective pursuit of education. But most importantly, taking the deliberate decision to manage without the technologies for a period of time models to students that it is possible to control the use of technology, and control is an essential feature of responsible use. A digital detox, of course, is unlikely to be very effective if it is imposed. However, if the concept is discussed with student leaders, so that they see the potential benefits, and if, consequently, they are prepared to own the event and carry through its management themselves, it has the potential to be a powerful experience within the school community. Such an event could provide an effective model that students can choose to carry over also into other areas of life.

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2 Replies to “Teenagers, personal mobile devices and social media – a reasoned approach”

  1. Hi Steve,
    great article. With your permission I’d like to put a link to this in my school BLOG to parents.
    Thanks
    Mark

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