Thursday, December 11, 2014

Have Teens Become the Tool of their Tools?

As I pondered a talk on teens and technology, an article by Michael Mulligan, the headmaster of Thacher School in Ojai, CA came across my desk. In “The Three Most Important Questions you can ask Your Teenager” Mulligan sites William Deresiewicz book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, and claims the following of the millennials:

“A large-scale survey found self-reports of emotional well being have fallen to the lowest levels in a 25 year study… fifty percent of college students report feelings of hopelessness; one-third reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function in the last twelve months… They are stressed-out, over-pressured; [they exhibit] toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation."

If this is true, what role does technology play? Have our teens become the tool of their tools?

It’s quite fitting, actually, that we are sitting here in the Emerson room reflecting on the transcendentalists’ philosophy of life 160 years later. Yes. Mr. Thoreau. I dare say some of us, myself included, have become the tool of our tools. We have let technology use us. So, how do we turn this around and take ownership back? How do we use technology and then model this use to others: our colleagues, friends and family members including our children? How do we use technology mindfully and purposefully? First we identify the issues with technology, and it’s not all bad. I often say that one’s relationship to technology is like one’s relationship to food. Let’s cut out the excess white sugar and eat more of the kale of technology.

When I talk about the Millennials, I am talking about teens and youth in their 20s. Some call the Millennials Generation Y, but why do I talk this way about the Generations? Because our generations matter in relationship to technology. Gen Xers, born after the Baby Boomers, are a cusp generation. The Gen Xers are the digital immigrants who are parenting the digital natives. What? Yes. This is part of the difficulty we have parenting right now. Everything is new, even the lingo, and it’s happening at an exponential rate. We don’t have time to catch up because it’s happening so fast. There’s a new language, especially when we talk about Technology. And the Millennials, with Generation Z following right behind, are our digital natives

When we talk about technology, I’m talking about Internet technology. What happened when we went from atoms to bits, in Nicholas Negroponte’s words in Being Digital. I’m going to hold up these books and site passages from them, in analog because we absorb and retain more from a physical book than the same words online.  In addition, if one is reading later at night close to bedtime, the blue light emitted by digital devices has been known to contribute to sleep disturbances and in more extreme forms sleep disorders. 

You can immediately see where the talk could go when we start talking about using your digital devices in bed with you, and then sleeping with digital devices, for example, your cell phone, but I’m going to ask to hold off on that topic for a moment. We will return to it.

Can you remember the first time you went online? I can. It was in 1997. I was 35 years old with a 5 year old and a 3 month old. I am a digital immigrant. My daughters are digital natives. We are parenting in a whole new world. We have been parenting as we’ve been learning, just as if we’d moved to the lower East side of NYC in the late 1880s during the Industrial Revolution.

For those of you who don’t know me, I taught at Fenn from 1986 to 2003, bridging the analog and digital age of not only parenting, but teaching, too. I trained at the Shady Hill School with their philosophy of interdisciplinary teaching and brought it to Fenn. One of my passions is creating new and innovative curriculum so I was one of the first teachers to include CD Roms as part of the course material. I was an early adopter of technology in the classroom, and because of this I became a defacto Director of Academic Technology. Fenn hired a Director of Technology, but the school was not wired, so while Michael Lyman was wiring the school, Jerry Ward asked me to research and create Fenn’s first 1, 5 and 10 year technology plans.

Why is this story important? I don’t believe we can talk about parenting our teens and children about technology without looking at our own relationship to it. When I found the Internet, I found my brain. I am a non-linear thinker who can connect almost anything, as those who know me will attest. In 1997, I became addicted to the Internet. I had a major task before me, so this addiction served not only me, but the Fenn School very well because I created those technology plans, and in the process I began a fascinating pursuit of looking at the promise and perils of technology.  What happens when we move from atoms to bits, from an analog to a digital life? In Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation, Don Tapscott wrote in 1997: “You know that the new technology is important for children but you worry about the dark side. You see the promise but you read all the horror stories and you wonder what is true. This is something very new, very unprecedented. We worry about our children,” and we are facing the same dichotomy today.

"Never before has there been a time when reflection on human nature is so important, particularly because of the power of technology. Misused, technology can isolate us, numbing our social and human tendencies while keeping us continuously occupied. Used affirmatively, it can be a powerful vehicle for allowing each of us to participate in the global community of people who wish to shift the destiny of our planet,” is a recent quotation from the Shambala Principle.

In February I attended Wisdom 2.0 whose mission in their words is to address the great challenge of our age: to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world. I went for two reasons. I was interested in how Wisdom 2.0 applied to today’s youth culture, and they had their first Wisdom 2.0 NextGen conference this past fall, and the other was to understand my own attachment/addiction to technology.

Immediately after returning from this conference, our assignment in my yoga training was to choose to live by one of the Yamas, one of the 5 principles of yogic philosophy and I chose non-hoarding, only using what you need, and I applied this to technology. As I began to research and chronicle my journey, I realized I had plenty of information for a blog “Confessions of a Tech Addicted Yogi.” I eventually changed the name to Teens and Technology as I began to focus my research specifically to teens.

So what did I learn? What were some of the main issues with technology? How does one know if technology is having a negative impact? These are some of the questions.

  1. Do you experience angst and panic when you can’t find your phone? (This could be Nomophobia
  2. Do you feel physical anxiety when you haven’t checked your phone in awhile? (This could be due to dopamine decrease)
  3. Do you use it right before you go to sleep ?(Compromised sleep/Sleep deprivation)
  4. How often do you check your phone during the day? (Some teens check it up to 150 times)
  5. How many different windows and APPS do you open in an hour while doing homework? (Myth of Multi-Tasking)
  6. How often do you leave one task for another? How long does it take you to come back to original task? (Rapid Task Switching)
  7. Do you Feel an intimacy with your device —  for example do you sleep with it, or check it in the middle of the night or when you first get out of bed. 
What role is technology playing ? All of these will contribute to a decreased physical and emotional sense of well being.

Have we become the tool of our tools?  Yes. And technology addiction is on the rise. In a study at Baylor University this past year, 60% of the students self-diagnosed their cell phone addiction, and the study found that girls spent 10 hours a day on their phones and boys spent 8 hours. These are alarming statistics.

A little known physical fact is that 80% of us hold our breath when we check email. Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft Research coined the phrase email apnea when she researched and found that people inhale when they check email, but in the anticipation of what is to come, they neglect to exhale. Without the exhale our bodies shift into a high alert state of fight, flight or freeze. If one thinks about the Baylor Study findings, it means that college age Millennials are walking around in a state of non-breathing anticipation with an alert and frightened sympathetic nervous system for 8 to 10 hours a day. These physical conditions create anxiety and fear which is only augmented by Deresiewicz' findings.

Depression can be caused by Facebook and Instagram with a false reality that one's friends are happier and more popular than one based on the number of pictures tagged and posts liked. Aimlessness and lack of motivation can be blamed on the seductive and addictive nature of video games that are designed to entrap the user in a flood of dopamine hits, thus making it more difficult to put the game aside and complete schoolwork or go to a part time job.

Which leads us to Powering Down for Presence. Passion. And Purpose. 

When we power down or put our technology away we get some space. When we add a mindfulness practice to this we get even more time and space to think, synthesize, clarify and eventually listen to our intuition and create. Our creative voices come through so that we can identify our passions which can lead to purpose. With collaboration and planning we can go back to powering up to use the digital devices for good … until we get overloaded and jangly again.

Powering down is hard because we are so connected to our devices, so starting slowly with brief intervals of time is a good way to begin. It’s like building a muscle, but when one thinks about the cycle toward clarity, calm and reduced stress and anxiety, the rewards far outweigh the difficulties. How do we step away from the technology? Employ some strategies, but it requires mindfulness and a desire to change the reactivity. The first thing to do is recognize when you are having these addictive symptoms and apply a mindfulness practice such as STOP that I learned from Mary Ann Christie Burnside, a mindfulness meditation teacher sited on your handout.

Take a breath.
Observe your physical sensations, your emotions and your thoughts.
Proceed with a calmer, more aware mindset.

There are other ways to power down either as an individual or as a family. Tech breaks were created by Larry Rosen who wrote iDisorder. He claims it is so traumatic that we need to schedule 15 minute tech free time with one minute tech breaks when we can check out phones. Others suggest digital free zones like the dinner table, the bedrooms, and specific times when there is no technology for anyone in the family. This is important. As an adult/parent/teacher you need to walk the talk. You need to understand your own technology habits first before instructing younger generations.

Presence includes mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga. These are essential. Taking a walk in nature, solo without your phone, and going for a run without headphones. Your brain needs time to be quiet, in order to synthesize and learn. Boredom is good because the brain actually works harder when there is no input. This is when the brain retains, memorizes and synthesizes. In a UC Santa Barbara study, students spent 45 minutes a day meditating 4 times a week for 2 weeks. At the end of this time period, their GRE scores went up 16%. The brain wants space.

But there is more. It’s not just about powering down for presence. What if these moments of anxiety and despair are actually signifying another one of Thoreau’s famous quotations: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”

If today's teens are lost, then perhaps they need to go on a modern day Hero's Quest and ask the existential questions: Who am I? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What would happen if students ideally came to know themselves through intrinsic interest and experience? What if we taught passion to purpose as a curriculum, and then once they knew a purpose, they could begin to think creatively about that purpose and move from idea to impact? What if we asked them how do you want to serve your world? And we want to know how it connects to your authenticity, your desire, and your compassion for humanity. But first you need to put your cell phone down. You need to look up and see your world. Live in the present moment. Face to face with your peers in order to discover what you love.

Howard Thurman states it a little differently, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive," and if one says, "I don't know what makes me come alive," then that is the first obstacle in the Homerian journey. The mission is to discover what you love to do. Or who you love. Julia Butterfly Hill joined a group to help save the Redwood trees, but when she climbed into Luna, she found her passion in Luna and began a brilliant career due to her love for Luna and the environment.

A recent slide show in the Huffington Post outlined 19 ways to unplug that could double as 19 ideas to test out what makes you come alive. The list is on your handout, but I’ll read a few. Get Lost in Your City. What do you discover about yourself? Where do you find yourself stopping and looking? Take an art class. Dig through childhood memorabilia and remember what you loved to do as a child. Write stream of consciousness and see what you say. Play a board game. Feed the ducks. All of these will bring a sense of presence and calm as you detach from technology, but what else can you learn? Was there an inkling of a passion? Can you test it out with purpose? Eventually you create a direction and a discipline to move from idea to impact, and ultimately you find meaning. And that meaning can be through using technology.

In the Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social ChangeJennifer Aaker writes, “In fact, the happiest people are those who have stopped chasing happiness and instead search for meaningfulness, a change in direction that leads to more sustainable happiness – the kind that enriches their lives, provides purpose, and creates impact.”

What if this is an opportunity to restructure the way we think about education and learning. What if it’s time we valued and promoted our teens’ quests to find themselves, to understand who they are, what they love, and why they do what they do?

What happens when depressed and anxious teens seek passion and purpose to make a difference in the world? Or in TS Eliot's words, "to Dare to Disturb their Universe?" I claim they find meaningfulness.   As a young man, the great philosopher William James went to Paris to study. He was extremely depressed and became suicidal, but he decided to make a wager suggested by a French philosopher. He would act every day for a moment as if the universe was full of purpose and meaning. At the end of this period, he had discovered so much meaning and purpose that he changed his life around. Thus, powering down for Presence + Passion + Purpose = Meaning.

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