Youth Culture Window
In Germany’s Middle Ages, the story circulated of a man dressed in multicolored (pied) clothing, who led kids away from a village, to their destruction, under the spell of his musical pipe.
Is technology today’s Pied Piper?
The Two Sides of Tech
For years now, teens have willingly thrown themselves upon technology because of the many important advances in connectivity, education, and entertainment it affords them. Their lives are seemingly dependent on tech, and their use of tech, especially mobile devices, is growing rapidly.
But is technology ultimately good for them, or more destructive than it’s worth?
To varying degrees, most parents wrestle with that question. What kind of technology should we allow…and how much? How often should we permit our kids to use it? How can we keep them safe during the process? What’s the fallout if we don’t?
There seems to be two sides to tech. For instance, parents usually appreciate the connectivity most gadgets such as cell phones provide…not to mention the leverage they afford them in disciplinary situations. (In fact, many parents secretly lament having to confiscate mobile phones because of the added inconvenience and worry that it causes.) But big cell phone bills caused by overages, or embarrassing pictures posted online are too often the reality check of tech.
Even youth workers are caught in the conundrum. Technology usually grants them instant access to kids, and great avenues to promote their ministries. But, at the same time, tech like cell phones, mp3 players, and even handheld video games can cause lots of distractions during those ministries.
With technology’s promise of convenience, safety, cool entertainment, and the potential increase for parent/youth communication also comes some fairly serious drawbacks.
Here are just a few….
Loss of Safety
According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 6,000 highway deaths in the U.S. each year result from “distracted driving.” In too many cases, teenagers under the influence of tech are behind the wheel.
A study by AAA and Seventeen recently reported that 86% of teenagers admitted to distracted driving, the act of driving a car while talking or texting on a cell phone, eating, applying makeup, or adjusting radios. Among the 1,999 teenage drivers polled, researchers found that the older students (ages 18-19) were more likely to engage in the risky behavior than the younger students (ages 16-17) were.
The same report also includes an interactive map of the U.S. which shows what restrictions – if any – are placed on “inexperienced drivers,” versus “all drivers.” (Apparently it’s legal to do just about anything while driving a car in my home state of Florida. Great….)
Thankfully, several cell phone companies are employing big names in their initiative to help kids learn the lesson that “texting can wait.” Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies, aka The Flyin’ Hawaiian, has interrupted his post-season bid for the World Series to help AT&T send that message to millions of young drivers. “I know better than anyone that texting is part of everyday life, but nothing is so important to risk lives. It only takes a few seconds for that message to mean the difference between life and death. It can wait,” says the all star outfielder.
Additionally, the Jonas Brothers have teamed up with insurance giant AllState, and in this online video, say “Texting kills. Don’t text and drive.”
We know that celebrities can certainly influence teenagers toward risky behavior, so it’s good to see some of them taking proactive steps to help teenagers avoid unnecessary risk. But will it be enough? Because….
Loss of Sleep
When The National Sleep Foundation released their findings about the amount of sleep American teenagers were getting each night, the bad news continued.
According to them, only 1 in 5 teens gets the full nine hours recommended; yet 9 in 10 parents believe their kids are getting enough sleep at least a few nights during the school week. Without a doubt, this highlights a definitive “awareness gap” between parents and teens on the important subject.
I’m certain that the argument between parents and teens over the issue of an appropriate bedtime has raged since the days of Noah, but now, there are vastly different reasons why kids stay awake much later. This summer, the Chicago Tribune referenced the medical journal Pediatrics’ discovery that after 9pm, 82% of high school students surveyed were still watching TV, 55% were also using a computer online, and 44% were still talking on the phone — with another 34% engaged in sending and receiving text messages. Of the surveyed group, only 21% of teenagers got the 8-10 hours of sleep recommended.
I’m no research scientist, but it’s not hard to connect at least a few dots between kids’ loss of sleep and their loss of safety due to overuse of technology. Sadly, the number of fatal traffic accidents suffered by teens isn’t surprising when one considers that sleepy drivers are also dangerous drivers.
Loss of Hearing
But the troubling news concerning tech’s influence reaches into yet another aspect of teens’ lives. The Journal of the American Medical Association just reported that 1 in 5 teens also has some sort of hearing loss, which represents a 30% increase in kids’ lives since the 80’s and 90’s. Researchers and doctors are quick to stress that portable music players are definitely a potential suspect in this new discovery, but they are also calculating genetic factors into the equation, as well.
But the loss of hearing is not just an audible one. It may be a relational one, too.
Loss of Relationship
In spite of the boast by much of technology which claims to connect people, new research from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America shows that more than one-third of parents are concerned that technology is actually making their job of warning kids about drugs and alcohol more difficult.
“The usual suspects” appear in this line up, as well: 38% of parents fingered TV, 37% blamed computers, and 33% faulted video games, claiming each of these devices made it harder for them to communicate with their media-engrossed teens about risky behaviors associated with drug and alcohol use. The survey of more than 1,200 parents also confirms that 25% of parents are worried that newer forms of media, including texting, social networking sites, and even Twitter actually hinder effective parent/child communication about the dangers of teen substance abuse.
This sounds like a two-headed dragon to me. Not only do these kinds of gadgets and high-tech toys eat up kids’ time spent apart/away from parents, but many pro-alcohol and pro-drug messages are imported across these technological bridges.
Researchers are beginning to come to the conclusion that anyone – not just teens – can suffer from misuse and/or overuse of technology. Most people’s use of technology impairs “downtime” that might otherwise allow them to remember, learn, and create better. It’s just another loss inflicted on those who cannot properly manage their use of technology.
Most companies have a specialized department called “loss prevention.” These employees are an expense to the company, but are viewed as essential, because without them the costs to the company are far higher. With so many potential losses associated with the misuse of technology, parents and youth workers have some important decisions to make regarding loss prevention.
We’ll have to decide how much tech is enough, and how much tech is too much. We’ll have to make firm decisions on what teens can connect to, and what they need to be steered away from. We’ll also have to decide whether or not we’ll lead by example in this important arena of life.
Here are a few thoughts to consider while making those decisions about teens and technology.
- Teach the benefits of responsible use, and the pains of irresponsible use. Let’s face it; teenagers have a reputation for NOT thinking things through. (That’s an understatement, huh?) They don’t consider what tomorrow will feel like if they stay up till 2am texting their friends. Nor do they think about the ramifications of a racy pic taken on a cell phone. The good news is, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. For example, it’s OK for our kids to have cell phones with cameras – in fact, it’s difficult to find one without that feature these days – if they know what to take pictures of, and what not to take pictures of. But they’ll only know if we teach!
- Monitor all use. Yep, I said “all” use. Parents of the best kids I know are also those who check in on text messages, online web histories, video games, friends on social networking sites, movies attended, etc (Last week Jonathan blogged about an application that helps parents do this). These parents aren’t being snoopy; they’re just being responsible. They’re also not being sneaky. They tell their kids up front that they’ll be helping them manage their use of technology. That way, trust is built up instead of torn down. Sure, it takes a lot of time and energy to do this, but in every instance it’s worth it, because in every instance it’s a child hanging in the balance.
- Model what you teach. Maybe this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Stay off the websites you wouldn’t want your son viewing. Don’t let your ring tone be from a song you’ve restricted them from listening to. Speaking of cell phones, don’t text behind the wheel. Kids check the mail, so think about what you’re renting from Netflix. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when you see misuse of technology develop in your kids’ lives.
Companies spend millions and millions of dollars every year to make sure their technology “woos” us and our kids to it like the original pied piper. But let’s not allow ourselves or our teenagers to be led astray. With some care and intentionality, it’s possible to gain from technology, while also preventing the losses.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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