You don’t need to have any of your own, or to work with kids, to feel this week’s “Edweek” ( a progressive online journal) headliner touch a tender place in your own heart. A majority of U.S. middle school children surveyed (an annual health and wellness check-up required of all states) strongly identified with the statement, “Spending time on social media makes me unhappy with my own life”. Maybe you have brothers and sisters, or nieces and nephews in the 12-to-14 year old age range. If so, the information below will resonate, I’m sure.
For those of us who know this age group well (my early career years were spent as a public school teacher, then counselor, vice principal and principal), we know a couple of things about this late tween, early teen bracket that makes the survey data so significant. First, medical research shows that the brain of the tween-teen is highly impressionable and reactive to both positive and negative input. Second, research also tells us that this group – among all Internet users – tends to devote the most hours interacting with others on a wide variety of social platforms, most of it pinging personal identity, personal happiness and self esteem.The relevance? Of all age groups, this one lacks key mental and emotional filters and therefore discernment needed to process what their eyes and ears take in.
And because of that lack of ‘filtering’, these very young teens can be used as a kind of bellwether for a lot of good and bad (in our media exposure, especially) that needs to be called out: celebrated, or, analyzed and fixed. As any game designer knows, the energy, focus, intensity and precociousness of a 12 year old can be both formidable and so annoying in the beta testing process. And stamina? Ask any parent or teacher of a kid this age: they are practically unstoppable and impossible to fatigue when they’re engaged with any kind of electronic media. Given that we know their young brains are still so malleable, their emotions running on ‘high’ pretty much at all times, the rest of the Edweek story is the amazing and hopeful – for all of us – part.
As adults, our fascination and fixation with social media has become almost universal. And, as any human browser can tell you, time spent online (doing whatever, solo or in the company of others) can easily start to feel like a necessary and even addictive part of our daily routines. But knowing what we know about kids, it seems counterintuitive – impossible even — that middle school children would have the same awareness, to be able to sense themselves getting hooked. Nevertheless, Edweek highlights the fact that focus groups with these kids, post-survey, indicated that they – totally unable to regulate themselves in what we might think of as mature ways – were already in process of making the conscious decision to reduce their own screen time. Not to allow more time for homework, or sports, but to curb the Unhappiness Impact they knew was coming from time spent on these platforms.
As a new parent I believed that I’d have some ‘say’ in my child’s powering up or down. But I learned otherwise, when I became a school administrator. My students could not only routinely hack school computers (schools don’t like to acknowledge this), but the student body was swimming with phones, available just for the asking.
Why does it matter that so many – a majority of tweens and teens in the U.S. — are recognizing that all is not, literally, “fun and games” on the Internet? Because it means that more and more very young people are learning to think for themselves; learning to stand up for themselves; learning to regulate themselves in healthier ways. No matter what your chronological age is right now, there’s a newer generation coming up, fast and furiously, right behind you. The more you travel further on down the road, the more important it becomes that these younger, savvier, and more technologically-oriented future adults find the right balance in all the ways that matter.
Writer Victor Hugo (“Les Misérables”) offered what has become one of my favorite quotes about exactly why we should care about what our children – as a collective of humanity – are up to:
“If you look into the eyes of the young, you see flame. If you look into the eyes of the old, you see light.”
In the flame, and in the light, I see Hope.