I am sure that, no matter how dim and distant our own teenage story may seem to be, we can all remember the pains and pangs of adolescence. The slammed doors, the sulks in the bedroom, the moans of "it's so unfair"; the emotional rollercoaster ride we endured has been a common experience for teenagers for a number of generations now.
There is one aspect of teenage life however which I think is different for youngsters these days, and it makes their teenage tribulations an order of magnitude more complex: mobile technology. There have been a number of studies recently on the impact these devices have had on the lives of youngsters and their findings make for uncomfortable reading. Sleepless nights, cyber bullying and sexting are a cocktail of ingredients guaranteed to give parents nightmares about the dangers that come with the uses of modern day technology. Stories in the media don’t help; we are bombarded seemingly on a weekly basis about the evils of technology and how we are raising a generation of zombies, addicted to mobiles and unable to learn at school or conduct a civil conversation at home.
However, though there is no doubt that these are pressing concerns, the situation does need to be tempered with a degree of calm. Scares about the “youth of today” go back as far as Elvis Presley, when his gyrations on television were feared to be corrupting the teenagers of America. However, what makes our anxieties about today’s youngsters more acute is the scale of the change between our social interactions back then and their online lives now.
There’s no doubt that technology presents a challenge. However opposing the situation we live with is as pointless as bemoaning the demise of the slide rule. We as teachers and parents need to educate children in the ways in which it is right and wrong to use their phones. In my school it is simple: pupils can use their phones to aid their learning in class if the teacher agrees; use of the phone in public places and in formal school time is forbidden. It is rarely a problem.
I would suggest at home similar rules apply. Of course youngsters will want to spend more time than is healthy on their screens, just as in my day I wanted to watch too much television. That’s where parenting comes in. It’s up to us to let our children know when it’s time to text and when it’s time to chat, when we can converse on Facebook and when it’s a face to face conversation that’s needed.
And there’s the rub. It is we as parents who make those ground rules and we don’t do that purely in what we say. We set our expectations in how we behave. One of those many surveys I mentioned took a more interesting slant and asked youngsters about their parents’ use of mobiles. Over a third of those surveyed reporting having to ask their parents to put down their phones, and half of those requests were unsuccessful. Unsurprisingly, the parents surveyed did not perceive the problem to the same extent.
I am sure there is more than a hint of truth in these findings. These pocket Pandora’s boxes are infernally tempting and I know I am guilty of “just checking my emails” far too often. The challenge for us all is to practise rather than preach and establish the social values we want for our children by starting with ourselves. If we want our children to turn off, tune in to the real world and drop out of the virtual one, we need to have the discipline to do so as well.