Teenagers, personal mobile devices and social media – a reasoned approach

For many, this is a hot topic. The past decade has seen a massive increase in the availability of personal mobile devices. Over the same period, there has been a large-scale development of social media sites and apps, which are very popular amongst teenagers. (For a recent statistical summary see How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?, Evan Asano, Social Media Today, Jan 4th, 2017).

Opinion concerning the effects of the technological age on teenagers is mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, there are those who seek to shield teenagers from technology, listing increased anxiety, sleeplessness and the danger of moral corruption among reasons for their approach. On the other hand, there are those who point to benefits such as increased access to information, ease of communication and life skill development for the 21st century, in their catalogue of benefits accruing from the technological age.

Those at either extreme of the spectrum of opinion concerning teenagers and their use of personal mobile devices and social media are unlikely to change their opinion. Most, however, feel somewhat bewildered by the extraordinary range of views on this subject. Let me outline some basic tenets of what I believe to be a reasoned approach.

Both the benefits and risks associated with teenage use of personal mobile devices and social media are real. It seems to me that this represents a reasonable starting point. Personal mobile devices and social media sites are essentially tools and as such they are morally neutral. But as with most tools, when placed in human hands, they can be used for good or ill. What is important, therefore, is for us to understand the range of benefits associated with their use, whilst at the same time recognizing the dangers. The challenge with respect to teenagers then becomes that of how to help them develop boundaries that will lead to the optimum balance between the benefits that can be gained from their use set against the minimum exposure to the risks.

Boundaries need to be flexible according to the age and culture of the individual. We should never lose sight of that fact that all teenagers are individuals. Whilst we may refer to them generically as “teenagers”, who share common opportunities, concerns and challenges on account of their stage in life, they nevertheless remain individuals and what is right for one might not be right for another. Especially in the early teens, it might be necessary to have stricter boundaries whilst the teenager develops a feel for where their own boundaries should be, along with the will to establish and the capability to observe those boundaries. How personal mobile devices are to be used, which social media sites should be accessible, and which type of site or material should be considered inappropriate, will all change with the age of the user and the cultural beliefs of their family and community of origin.

Personal mobile devices and social media should be approached as any other issue affecting teenagers, not separated into an “extra serious” category of its own. It is, of course, true that the technological aspect of teenage life is one of the areas that distinguishes the experience of being a teenager today from what it may have been like for their parents or teachers when they were themselves teenagers. Whilst we should not underestimate the enormity of the shift that technological advancement has brought to society, I believe it is a mistake to invest this area with an extraordinary significance when it comes to our approach to helping teenagers navigate their way through it. Rather, our approach to helping them through this particular aspect of teenage life ought, I suggest, to be similar to the approach we take to other areas of teenage life, including matters like the development of sexuality, responsible behaviour within the family, and the management of alcohol intake. The subject under discussion will be influenced by a multitude of other areas of teenage life, each of which will also be influenced by the aspect of technology. Overall, consistency is important so as to create a unified approach to the whole of life rather than risk the creation of taboos through a disproportionate focus on one particular area.

Basic tips for parents

An article by Ana Homayoun earlier this year in the New York Times, based on a survey by Common Sense Media, suggested that 86% of teenagers claim to have received general advice about life online from their parents. Alongside this, some 30%, it has to be said, reckoned that their parents knew little or nothing about the social media apps and sites they use. However, the most striking finding was that most teenagers “still say that their parents have the biggest influence on determining what is appropriate and inappropriate online” (Homayoun).

Whilst it may not always feel like it, then, the vast majority of parents retain a powerful opportunity to influence their teenagers in the area of online activity. With that in mind, here are some basic tips.

Make “responsible use” the goal. Whenever the issue of setting boundaries arises in the context of technology, I encourage parents to make “responsible use” the goal. Any boundaries developed with the teenager ought to have as their aim the goal of promoting the teenager’s responsible use of the technological tools available to them. This approach seeks to shape behaviour in the present in such a way that it provides a firm foundation for the future.

Communication is the key – listening. Communication between parents and their teenagers is not always smooth or easy. However, clear communication is a key requirement if the teenager is to be enabled to set helpful boundaries in the realm of their personal mobile devices and use of social media. It is important to remember that good communication is two-way in its nature! Parents need to take time to listen actively to their teenagers about how it feels to be immersed in a world of technology with its 24-hour demand for their attention from social media sites. Those who thus gain an understanding of the world their teenager inhabits, and who hear the areas in which their teenager would like help in shaping boundaries, are showing themselves to be wise parents.

Communication is the key – explaining. Alongside careful listening, there needs to be patient explanation in terms of making clear the need for helpful boundaries with regard to the use of personal mobile devices and social media. If the aim of developing responsible use is kept clearly in mind, then patient explanation, as opposed to aggressive assertion, provides a reliable path towards acceptance on the part of teenagers of the need for boundaries to enhance their freedom to explore online from a position of relative safety.

Basic tips for teachers

Model responsible use within the educational process. The way technology is put to use within the classroom in pursuit of the curriculum is an important area where the responsible use of technology can be modelled for teenagers. Students can see with little effort when the use of technology provides for genuine enhancement of their education and when it is more a case of their teacher using it simply because they (the teacher) thinks it’s cool. As with all educational tools, both personal devices and social media can be used to great effect in school, but they can also be used frivolously and that is of no help to anyone.

A forum for teenage discussion. It is important that schools accommodate the need for teenage debate about the benefits and drawbacks of technological resources. Teachers can do their students a great service by allowing their classroom to become, when appropriate, a forum where debate is encouraged about aspects of the use of personal devices and social media. For many, debate provides the opportunity for the honing of personal beliefs and approaches, and in this area, as in others, schools provide an invaluable service by allowing debate to occur.

Support teenage action. A recent article in the Daily Mail Online (UK) drew attention to the emergence in some schools of an opportunity for a digital detox. Students and teachers agree on a number of days during which there will be no use of technology in school, either in class or during breaks. This could have value in several respects. It emphasizes that these technologies are tools and that human life and education can continue without them. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of the technologies by reminding participants of some of the ways that we have come to rely them for the more effective pursuit of education. But most importantly, taking the deliberate decision to manage without the technologies for a period of time models to students that it is possible to control the use of technology, and control is an essential feature of responsible use. A digital detox, of course, is unlikely to be very effective if it is imposed. However, if the concept is discussed with student leaders, so that they see the potential benefits, and if, consequently, they are prepared to own the event and carry through its management themselves, it has the potential to be a powerful experience within the school community. Such an event could provide an effective model that students can choose to carry over also into other areas of life.

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Teenagers and Boundaries

Recent events in the worlds of both entertainment and politics have underlined for many the importance of teenagers learning to construct and observe appropriate boundaries. Our boundaries define who we are, allow us to interact smoothly with those around us, and lay the basis for successful family, professional and social relationships.

Teenagers are sometimes caricatured as seeking to live without boundaries. However, life with no boundaries is anarchy, and whilst it might sometimes look like this from a distance, anarchy is not a fair description of the teenage world. Such descriptions are, rather, examples of the human tendency to dismiss the unfamiliar, to bad-mouth those who are perceived to be different from us.

Teenagers, however, do test and challenge boundaries. This is part of the process of growing towards maturity and working out which boundaries are appropriate for them to adopt as their own. To this end, an understanding of the importance and purposes of boundaries, the reasons given for particular boundaries, and the benefits and responsibilities attached to boundaries are all important.

The importance and purpose of boundaries

Teenagers are apt to see boundaries as control mechanisms by which adults seek to keep them in check. Boundaries are, however, so much more than control mechanisms.

Limitation. It is undeniable that there is an element of limitation within the concept of a boundary. Just as a property boundary delineates the limit of land ownership, so our personal boundaries help define the extent of acceptable behaviour. This is the characteristic of a boundary that a teenager might see as controlling, but that understanding comes from an egocentric interpretation of a concept that is essentially social. Theoretically, we all accept limitations to our personal freedom of expression so that we might all feel comfortable interacting with each other in society. Such boundaries lay the basis for the ways family, professional, social and intimate relationships are all conducted.

Liberation. A further purpose of a boundary is to define an area within which there is liberation. In terms of the analogy of the property boundary introduced above, the boundary of one’s own property defines an area within which there is a considerable degree of freedom for the owner to decide how they will conduct their life. Similarly, the concept of personal boundaries defines an “area” within which the individuals, teenagers included, are at greater liberty to experiment with their lifestyle. Boundaries concerned with the time a teenager returns home in the evening is an example of such a boundary as it accords freedom to explore up until the time boundary is reached.

Protection. The third purpose of a boundary to which I wish to draw attention is that of protection. The property boundary again provides a helpful analogy. One’s own property is the place to which one retreats to find peace and security – it’s the place where you feel safe. Similarly with personal boundaries, they are meant to provide protection, both to us and to others. Boundaries built around the concept of “safe sex” would be an example of a boundary providing a measure of protection to all involved.

The role of parents in helping teenagers develop boundaries

It is important to make clear that in talking of boundaries, I am not talking about the plethora of tiny matters about which many families have their own rules. In talking about the need to develop boundaries, I am talking about major areas such as what defines us as individuals, our relationships with other people, and how we function as members of society.

Agreed boundaries are better than imposed boundaries

Good parents establish boundaries for their children from a very young age, and for the most part, their children accept those boundaries as “the way things are” within their family. Once they reach the teenage years, however, they will begin to question, in some cases if there’s a need for boundaries at all, and in most cases, why these established boundaries cannot be placed somewhere else. It is at this point that boundaries need to have some flexibility. As age and maturity increase, there needs to be a flexibility to create space within which teenagers can examine whether they will adopt the exact same boundaries as their family of origin, or whether they will modify or replace those boundaries. The concept of an agreed boundary, which allows the teenager to have input, and in which there are agreed consequences if the boundary is ignored, is advantageous for all concerned.

The best way of teaching boundaries is to model them

Teenagers can be idealistic in their views. If teenagers perceive their own parents as demanding higher standards from them than they are prepared to live by themselves, the likelihood of them rejecting parental boundaries is increased. Put more positively, the best way for parents to help their teenagers develop good boundaries for themselves is to model those boundaries. Parents, for example, whose personal boundaries ensure they treat others with respect whatever the circumstances convey the importance of such boundaries to their teenagers.

The role of teachers in helping teenagers develop boundaries

Alongside parents, teachers have a key role in helping teenagers develop boundaries.

School is the primary environment for developing a sense of workplace boundaries

School is the daily workplace for most teenagers. The standards and expectations a school sets for its students lay the basis for their understanding of acceptable workplace conduct. The establishment of personal boundaries and respect for those of others are essential areas of learning, such as those that define a person’s “space”. Appropriate boundaries enable us to function most of the time without having actively to ask in every situation questions like how close it is appropriate to stand or sit to another person, or if, when and where it is acceptable for one person to touch another.

Teachers model professional boundaries

Teachers are the primary models for teenagers of professional boundaries since teachers are the professionals with whom most teenagers come into contact on a daily basis. It is not simply the teacher-teenager relationship that is important here. Students see the value teachers place on each other and how they relate to each other. They see how their teachers relate to the school’s secretarial staff and the cleaners. They see how they relate to parents when issues arise that need to be addressed. Teenagers use their observations as they form their understanding of what might be the appropriate boundaries to take with them into the workplace. Much of this is not “taught” in the traditional sense of classroom teaching, but it is communicated nonetheless and it is an important element of how the best teachers help prepare their students for the world of work.

A case study in boundaries: the world of personal mobile devices and social media

The advent of personal mobile devices and the development of social media have demolished many traditional social boundaries. During the past week, CNN reported a survey conducted in the US for Common Sense Media. The survey suggested that 50% of American teenagers feel they are addicted to their mobile devices which, given the human facility for denial, suggests the figure is considerably higher. Personal mobile devices allow the inclusion, or intrusion, of social media into every aspect of the teenager’s life.

The survey did not examine the way teachers use personal mobile devices. However, the 78% of teens who check their phone at least hourly was followed closely by the 69% of parents who do the same! So how can parents and teachers help teenagers establish reasonable boundaries with regard to the use of social media? In next week’s blog, I will aim to discuss that question. In the meantime, if you have an opinion about the above discussion, or about the best way to help teenagers construct appropriate boundaries for use of their personal mobile devices and social media, I invite you to leave a comment on this site.


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