Pandora on Speed Dial - Surviving the Smartphone Pandemic

Imagine the scene - it's the beginning of the school day and kids are flooding into the playground, ready for the start of the first period. Each of them is dragging a large wheeled-trolley with them. This doesn't contain games kit or text books but is instead crammed full of electronic devices. There is a games console, a video and stills camera, a TV and DVD player, a music system and a personal computer. The kids have all of these bits of tech wifi enabled and can play with them whenever they like during the school day and at home afterwards. Is it likely that carrying all that kit around might result in them being distracted during and between lessons? Is it possible that they will be less sociable, less active, less engaged in the world around them? We'd never allow this kind of thing happen in reality, would we?

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Just because our kids aren't struggling with a trolley full of tech, doesn't mean this isn't exactly the state of affairs our teens have to navigate every day - if they are one of the majority who owns a smartphone - a marvel of modern ingenuity that can provide all those things in the trolley and more.

Tech is here to stay and I am not one of those teachers who insists that we should return to the 'good old days' when phones only made calls. The smartphone revolution has empowered learners and is forcing educators to evolve in response to a world where all human knowledge is a few clicks away. Such power, however, is a little like the fire that Prometheus stole from the Gods - it promises almost divine agency, but can be as much a curse as it is a gift.

Most teens, just like their parents who are increasingly mesmerised by the mobile medusa, now check their phones up to 150 times a day - that works out to be about once every six minutes! Before you dismiss this as Luddite scare-mongering, why not install a screen tracker app like RealizD or Moment and find out how much time you spend staring at a screen each day? The average is 3.6 hours daily, but I suspect this is a very conservative figure for most students.

App designers and social media mavens have made a science of hijacking and holding our attention. The evidence is mounting that push notifications and habitual status updates feed and reinforce the reward centres of our brain so that we become literally addicted to the dopamine release that comes at the tap of a button. So effective is this digital dependency that over half of our kids admit that they would feel extreme anxiety if they were to be separated from their phone for 48 hours. Over 60% of teens sleep with the phone within arm's reach and most check them several times throughout the night, leading to disrupted sleep and fatigue.

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Just in case I haven't made the point clearly enough, here are a few more fun facts and figures. 40% of teens will check their phones while on the toilet and 20% of Millennials have stared at their notifications while having sex! Perhaps even more disturbing (if only slightly) is the fact that 75% of all drivers admit to using their phones while behind the wheel, despite the fact that 26% of all accidents are now attributed to phone use. We are literally killing ourselves because we cannot look away from our screens.

For those of you who are regular readers of Tests of Life, you'll know that we are committed to helping students, parents and teachers to master the 'hidden curriculum' - all those things that are not 'in the exam' but shape the future wellbeing of the next generations who are, let's not forget, our most precious resource. Misuse of mobile devices impacts all four of the key areas that make up that curriculum:

Health

Excessive mobile use has been found to negatively impact sleep and leads to all of the health issues associated with chronic sleep deprivation.

Happiness

Those addicted to their devices are more anxious, distracted and prone to negative self-image caused by unrealistic expectations promoted on social media.

Connection

Ironically, even though smartphones are designed to engender communication, they tend to result in a lack of authentic connection when face-to-face. A constant stream of push notifications can mean we are rarely fully present when in the company of others. The selfie allows us to capture a moment for posterity while exiling us from the experience we are so keen to record.

Engagement

Again, the smartphone revolution has brought so many benefits that allow our teens to recognise that they are part of a wider world. The Arab Spring was shaped in no small part by real-time social media updates and there are all kinds of apps designed with sustainability and citizenship in mind. Augmented reality interfaces, in particular, are ripe with possibilities for mobile users in the future. The shadow side of such tech is that our worldview and access to information is being mediated and shaped at an unprecedented level. There may soon be nothing but brands of 'fake news' to choose from!


Cutting the Ties That Bind

So how do we cut the Gordian knot of smartphone dependency? How do we hold onto all the opportunities provided by mobile devices while not becoming enslaved by our own tools? There is no easy answer, but burying our heads in the sand is not an option for those of us tasked with helping prepare young people for the future. We must grasp the challenge unflinchingly, even if our efforts feel like we are fumbling in the dark. Some clear boundaries, courageous parenting and dialogue with young people must be our starting point. Any of the following are worth considering:

  • We should all build in incrementally longer periods of time when we go without our mobile devices. Are we using our devices or are they using us? Who is really in charge here? As with any addiction, slowly weaning ourselves off may be smarter than going 'cold turkey'. When we can be equally comfortable being connected or offline, we will know we have a healthy relationship with our tech.
  • Buy an alarm clock and then leave the phone on charge downstairs. If you really want to achieve 'God level' as a mobile detoxer, then turn off all push notifications and only check your social media accounts a few times a day.
  • Make a pact with your peer group - at social events and during shared meals, leave mobiles in pockets or surrender them at the door in the same way that car keys are quarantined at parties where alcohol is flowing! You wouldn't tolerate someone suddenly interrupting your conversation in mid-sentence so don't give the digital diva in your pocket that kind of power. Be present with the company you have - there is no such thing as effective digital multi-tasking - nearly every buzz or ping can be ignored without the sky falling in!
  • Decide what you consider to be an acceptable period of daily mobile phone use - one that allows you to enjoy the benefits of being connected, without developing an unhealthy attachment to your device. Then track your usage using one of the various apps available and stick to your allowance. 
  • Finally, discuss this issue with your friends and family - be open about all the advantages that come with the smartphone and be honest about the risks too. Are you in control of your online life? What are your strategies for maintaining a healthy balance? 

When Pandora's curiosity got the best of her and she opened the fabled 'box', all manner of ills were unleashed on the world, but we must not forget that she kept hold of one thing. It is something we should all grip firmly while wrestling with an issue as slippery as our relationship with technology - hope.


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Andy Fisher is the creator of Tests of Life - an educational project designed to help students, parents and teachers navigate the 'hidden curriculum'. He is an English teacher and PSHE co-ordinator, based on the east coast of the UK and uses his blog, podcast and digital products to spread the word that schools should be preparing young people for the tests of life, and not just for a life of tests!