Teens and Texting

It seems as though teens are becoming conditioned to be “on call” through texting with cell phones. Some youth say they feel social pressure to answer each other’s text messages regardless of the time of day, and that’s causing problems at home and at school. Teachers are concerned about the impact of interruptions on learning, and school administrators are responding with policies on cell phone-use in schools. But how can the education system guide teens through confronting compulsion if students are conditioned to be “on-call”? Can kids find the self-control to plan time with their cell phones efficiently? Conditioned to Be on Call is a documentary that explores teens’ relationships with cell phones.

I traveled to London, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Boston, M.A.; Ann Arbor, M.I.; Vancouver, B.C.; and Toronto, O.N. in search of some further insight and research into teens’ relationships with their cell phones and uncovered some fascinating discoveries.

Here is a sneak peak of the documentary. It is available for purchase by McNabb Connolly for educational and library distribution. For individual purchase of $24.00, please email me at info@janemitchinson.ca

Conditioned To Be On Call

I also co-authored a report on how teens view their attachment to their mobile devices and what role that plays in their ability to focus attention. Conditioned To Be On Call report

Q and A on Teens and Texting
Teens are creating a social space to maintain friendships and to help forge their identities. Their social circles are shifting and they are using technology to navigate through this process. They are also building a space separate from adults where they have control as they strive for independence. This is a natural part of growing up.

Why are many teens tethered to their cell phones?

Teens who frequently text feel a compulsion to stay connected with their friends. That compulsion is driven by social pressure to interact. These teens are the ones who text their friends if they don’t answer back right away sending question marks and repeating the message until a response is returned. Compulsion interferes with attention by sidetracking our thoughts and interrupting the processing going on in the brain. This is why it is so important to teach teens how to manage their attention.

Why don’t we just take cell phones away from students?

Taking away external or environmental distractions can only go so far in helping teens manage their attention. The internal interruptions that disrupt their thought processes are much harder to control. These can be described as the nagging feeling in the back of the head that keeps surfacing, thereby creating a distraction from within. Because this activity is going on inside the head, it is difficult for an observer to detect. Essentially, attention has been split. This split can interfere with more complex processing that we require when we engage in deeper learning. This is when single attention is necessary.

Split attention just sounds like multi-tasking. Why is single attention important when teens seem to be better at multi-tasking than the previous generation?

Split attention is like multi-tasking and teens are no better at it than their elders. Multi-tasking entails handling a number of complex thought processes at once. Our brains are limited this way. Experience and conditioning do not change that. Teens may instead be managing their time more effectively when they task switch between each single stream of complex thought processes. This is likely because they have a lot of experience accessing multi-screens and a heightened exposure to multi-modes of communication throughout their lives. Because that exposure began at a younger age, they may not feel stress the same way as older generations or those not as experienced with technology when it comes to being inundated with information from different channels.

Single attention is what all learners use to process information on a deeper level. This is where critical thinking and higher order thinking processes take place. We know that distractions inhibit single focus.

Aren’t cell phones a distraction that can inhibit teens’ ability to single focus?

Cell phones in the classroom are a distraction when used inappropriately. But many cell phones have smart phone capabilities and act as mini-computers. They can increase productivity exponentially when used for good purpose.

But if you let kids have their smart phones in the classroom, aren’t they just going to use them for texting each other?

Cell phones are already in the classroom whether the teacher knows it or not. Kids text behind their backs, under their desks and even in their pockets. Some even enjoy the challenge of not getting caught as they interact with friends in that social space that adults cannot enter. When we ban cell phones we are inviting a challenge from teens that is in their very nature to engage. We also fail to guide those teens that feel a strong compulsion to interact 24/7. Essentially, we are allowing them to be conditioned to be on call.

Who can help students learn to self-regulate?

Parents and teachers can help students learn self-regulation. Parents can establish guidelines for proper cell phone use at home. The process should include a discussion between teens and parents to assess age-readiness and individual needs in developing guidelines tailored for each teen. Parents can also model appropriate social etiquette by regulating their own use. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to guide students through the transition into a world where digital technologies are becoming extensions of ourselves. We see students every day for a good chunk of the day and we are already role models.

Imagine a space where teens come in to the classroom with their cell phones placed out on their desks and turned on in silent-mode. We open an opportunity:
1.    to teach students social etiquette around texting;
2.    to teach students how to manage their attention and compulsion.; and
3.    for students to become self-aware, thereby guiding them on the journey to becoming autonomous.

Links to the experts appearing in the documentary:

Neil Andersen, Teacher, Author, Consultant, Association for Media Literacy

danah boyd, Microsoft Researcher and Harvard Fellow

David Buckingham, Professor of Education, London Knowledge Lab, University of London

David E. Meyer, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan

Linda Stone, Former Senior Executive, Microsoft and Apple

8 thoughts on “Teens and Texting”

  1. Very timely and balanced and informed perspective. It’s great to read a blogpost that has some factual research behind it. Thanks for giving us permission to mark out boundaries (as parents and as educators). Sometimes we’re made to look old-fashioned and out of touch when we try.

    I think allowing them to use their phones, devices in schools is important so they can learn to use them responsibly and to learn to manage their compulsions. Since cell phones are mini-computers, they can be a great asset in the classroom. This is especially true for schools that can’t afford to buy devices for their students.

    In fact, we as a society need to be learning how to manage our compulsions (and not just regarding cell phones!). See this great article about the disengagement of parents from their kids because of cell phones:

    Hey, Dad can you get off the cell phone?

    There is a line of thinking that I hear that says that multi-engagement and multi-conversations are the new norm and are somehow equal to one on one focussed attention. Kids are apparently able to manage it all and are doing well at it. I’m not ready to concede on those points. Did we hear everything our parents were telling us when we were glued to our TV sets? I don’t think so. This is even more an issue now, when our cell phones and devices are more engaging than TV sets ever were. (Given the choice, we choose computers over the TV in our household. In fact, I sometimes have to push my kids to watch TV together since TV is social for our family. )

    Thanks again for a great article, Jane.


    1. Thanks for commenting Vivian.

      I’m with you. I’m not sure kids or adults can hold multi-conversations with single focus. The processing of relational details required for one engaged conversation can easily get confused with other conversational details especially when you add in the extra processing required of transferring language into text format. The possibility of mistakes increases. Even if participants are engaged in task switching instead of multi-tasking, as the level of processing goes up, the longer it takes to get back on task after switching.

      On the relationship side of things, I think there’s no greater gift than giving your full attention to the person you are with. It sends the message that the relationship matters. I’m not along in believing this. Several of my students have confessed to feeling the same way, so I don’t think this is even a matter of generational divide.

  2. The article is good, there is something to think about. I agree with Vivian that cell phones for our children as for us were televisions. For our grandchildren may be new technology. We cannot prohibit the use of technologies, we need to teach kids to make reasonable use of the gadgets. That they were not addicted to them.

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