Teens Carry Smartphones, But Are They Getting Smarter? A Response to My Fresh(wo)man Student

My fresh(wo)man composition students were charged with blogging reader responses to their chapter readings in Robert Atwan’s America Now text re: social media. In his first chapter, “Social Media: What Do We Gain? What Do We Lose?” authors Andrew Santella (“This Is Not About You,” 2013); Yzzy Gonzalez (“Technology Taking Over?” 2013); and Clive Thompson (“The Parent Trap: How Teens Lost the Ability to Socialize,” 2014) offer readers personal narratives and explications regarding social media’s influence/effect on its users, particularly its teenage and young adult users. Andrew Santella says social media encourages narcissistic behavior, while student writer Gonzalez illustrates her dependency to communication technologies–a dependency, says Thompson, for which parents are solely to blame. As I read through all of my student blog responses, one student (click here to read her blog, “Teens, Technology and Social Media”) posed two questions that I thought deserved an immediate response: “Are young adults the only ones active on social media?” she asked. “Why are we the only ones scrutinized when older adults have their smartphones in their hands just as much as us?” 

Well, Ms. Johnson, as a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 15 years, as an auntie who’s assisted in rearing two nieces (one who is nearing 17 years old), and as a sentient 36 year old being who longs and depends on human connection, I often scrutinize everyone’s attachment to and distraction with their communication technologies (smartphones and tablets) and social media networks (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). I scrutinize myself. However, as is often the case when one generation gazes at another, “killin yo vibe” is easier to do because as a member of a generation who glimpsed at social media networks via Doogie Howser and Zapp & Roger, I have experienced the world without technologies that tend to distract, disengage, and dehumanize their users. In other words, you Millennial students feel just as alien to me as I probably felt to my grandmother–and I’m light weight stretching that notion because only TV and landline telephones could possibly distance me from my grandmother (although we watched “Golden Girls” and “Star Search” together, and I didn’t call my friends while I was at Grandma’s house. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall talking to anyone on Grandmother’s phone who wasn’t a family member.)

Nevertheless, I realize how student focus, creativity, and commitment to academia has dramatically shifted as communication technologies advance. While students are reading more via tweets, updates, and posts, neither they’re reading skills nor their interests have increased. Albeit, students write more with social media; however, issues in clarity, mechanics, organization and development, as well as spelling and word choices also continue to increase. Additionally, many students are challenged to focus their attention long enough to sit through a 50-minute class or read a two page essay. Nicholas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” believes that folks aren’t as focused anymore because their brains are becoming like the communication technologies they use. As a matter of fact–and I was so exited about it–my student Brandon wrote about this very phenomenon in his blog response. (Click here to read his blog, “A Tweet A Day Keeps the Brain Cells Away.”)

Moreover, I’ve watched my 17 year old niece become the narcissist that Santella describes. With over 3000 Instagram friends, my niece finds it absolutely necessary to take a photo shoot of herself every single day. Her front yard serves as her backdrop, her mother the photographer, and her smartphone her camera. That child moves her body into at least ten poses including a fake laugh pose, the traditional peace sign pose, and what my sister has coined, “the Precious Moments” pose. I’m pretty sure if my niece received no likes on her daily postings, she would feel inferior, lonely, and unattractive. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in Program or Be Programmed, people’s connections to social media actually disconnect them from their authentic selves as well as the ability to form meaningful relationships with actual human beings. These feelings of disconnection actually encourage people to post more, tweet more, and Facebook more, because they are hungry for a sense of belonging. Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Cause when you (followers) like my posts, it secures my sense of self. yiKes!

I’m just like my niece, however. Well, not just like. Since my smartphone purchase many years ago, I, too, carry my phone in hand and use it to check (at least 20 times a day) all of my social networks. Like Gonzalez writes in her essay, my phone is my alarm clock; it rests under my pillow. I take it with me into the bathroom where I enjoy my morning shit and check my work emails and Facebook messages, which I never have at 6 a.m. Then, I power up my tablet (I’m lying. It stays on.) and blast my gospel music playlist while I shower and get dressed. I don’t have time for a photo shoot in the morning, however. But occasionally, I’ll post a morning Facebook status while en route to work. Then throughout the day, when I am not teaching or conferencing with students, I, too, take hold of my smartphone and fish for likes re: my quotes, inquiries, and latest painting and/or outfit. I think I’m humorous, engaging, and creative, so the more likes I receive, of course my ego expands, and I feel like the Queen of Zemunda. Look at me! So yes, Ms. Johnson, I also engage in narcissistic behaviors. However, unlike my niece and the many young people her age (and even some of my own peers), I can live–happily and successfully–without social media networks and without a smartphone. And I believe THAT ability and experience conjure the scrutiny that young people receive re: their attachments to computer technologies and social media networks.

Of course, technology is AWEsome and beneficial to our lives. I can’t imagine having to have used a typewriter to type my 200 page dissertation, and I thank God I didn’t have to use quill pens and oil lamps. Shit, I can barely stand teaching in a classroom void of an overhead projector, document camera, and white board. So, I get it. Being born in an era where one has access to communication technologies that make life a virtual walk in the park is a privilege, seemingly a birth right. I get it. I’m completely at awe with myself for locating books via a library’s card catalogue, and for recording songs off radio stations and movies off HBO, and for retrieving lyrics from WordUp magazine–or by simply pausing and transcribing, pausing and transcribing, pausing and transcribing–by hand–lyrics from the mix tape I made. Yes, communications technologies are absolutely convenient. Long gone the days of retrieving the newspaper from the front yard in order to get the TV guide where I rummaged TV listings that are now made available through a simple guide button on my remote control. Goodbye clunky phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and thesauri. Farewell dusty chalkboard, germy payphone, and tattered address book. Smartphone applications are heaven sent. I feel like Jesus built a fence all around me when techies created apps like maps, flixster, shazam, webmd, turboscan, 1password, checkplease, aroundme, and wordbook. They have contributed to my increased proficiency in various areas, especially those grounded in mathematics. However, because my childhood and teenage experiences were void of such computer technologies, I have the know how to do what too many of my students claim they cannot or are not inspired to do.

I read books, for fun. I read seven novels this summer, and yes, doing so required me to put down my phone. (However, it didn’t stop me from tweeting and posting author quotes.) Nonetheless, I read, which meant, I spent a lot of time alone, in deep thought, inside a focused attention where I could explore myself and others. I also know how to research and find what I need without an app. I don’t need a machine to teach me how to think and problem solve. Before I ask Google (or even Siri) for a potato souffle recipe, or before I got to webmd for diabetic symptoms, I call my mother and retrieve her recipe, our family history. I also still write and mail letters versus solely sending emails and text messages. I shuffle through, purchase, and send greeting cards versus sifting through millions of giphs and memes. I give people my undivided attention when I’m in their company–during dinner, in school, while walking. In other words, I am present to real life situations that allow me to remain in touch with myself and other actual beings. So, does my concern for student awareness make me (or any of my peers, mothers and grandmothers born before the 1980s) a “scrutinizing” member of a seasoned generation who ridicules a current generation’s behaviors and innovations just because I think the ideas and behaviors to which I am accustomed are “right” or better? And really, if scrutinizing encourages self-reflection, is scrutiny insulting or debasing? (Shakes head.) Naw.

What I do believe, however, is that computer technologies and social media are just as distracting and disabling as they are connecting and inviting. Therefore, millennial students (or any person, really) who struggle with identity, who have not had to “troubleshoot” life, who don’t realize who they are, what they’re made of, or to whom they belong–these millennials, who don’t know what genius they carry–get carried away with computer technologies and social media networks. Alas, many of them don’t even realize their virtual walk in the park is actually costing them their true inheritance. And so, older folks like me, who have engaged in the aforementioned activities that my students claim happened “back in the day,” are in a better position to exercise patience, focus, compassion, understanding, problem solving, creativity, inclusion, and critical thinking–all of which help people to understand themselves in relationship to others.The ability and absolute beauty in knowing Self becomes a practice in spirituality that encourages human beings to live as authentically and unapologetically as possible. And for sure, I am constantly practicing.

So, Ms. Johnson, while older folks are carrying their smartphones just as much as you and your peers are, I think part of the “scrutiny” you and your peers receive are grounded in the disconnected, disabled, and dehumanized behaviors many of you showcase that just don’t seem to be about a generational gap, per se. Arguably, you all will continue to be scrutinized, especially if so many of you proceed to claim, “I can’t, I can’t , I can’t,” like, “I can’t live without my phone.”

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About Kendra N. Bryant

I teach peace, & I write poetry. View all posts by Kendra N. Bryant

2 responses to “Teens Carry Smartphones, But Are They Getting Smarter? A Response to My Fresh(wo)man Student

  • Kimberly bryant

    So while reading this I glanced over at your niece who is sitting at the computer “doing home work”. Sure enough, phone is in hand, ear buds inserted and I just stared. I told her she had been featured in your blog and what the subject was. I told her she was obsessed with social media and technology to which she replied (with a bit of saltiness) “I’m not obsessed with anything! I can live without social media. I’m not as bad as a lot of adults I know. I can go to dinner, be at grandma’s house, go to a party and not be on my phone!” So I proposed and challenge but before I could even continue she interrupted and said, “Noooooo, I like my technology and social media, so I’m not doing a challenge…but I’m not obsessed.” Hmmmmmmmm… PS…we haven’t done photo shoots in a while.

  • drkendranbryant

    Kimberly Bryant,

    Why am I just seeing this comment? Argh. I clearly have to reset my WordPress settings so I can be alerted when comments come in. I was actually wondering why you hadn’t responded, since “Precious Moments” was featured. Bwaaahahahaha!

    Tell my niece, she is totally smartphone obsessed. The first step to healing, is admission. Perhaps come holiday break, we each can challenge ourselves to spend one entire day off of our phones. One day, 24 complete hours. I think it will be fun, especially if we put money on it. As Kiley would say (& I hate it when she does): “leggggggo!”

    kn

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