Tim Elmore writes about teaching leadership to young people. I have written about some of his work in an earlier blog post about coping with stress. He calls the generation of kids born after 9/11, Generation Z. A characteristic of these teens is that they spend a great deal of time with their electronic devices; so in my freshman seminar class, we spent some time discussing how their devices can either help them or hinder them in school.
For one lesson, we watched Can You Auto-Correct Humanity by Prince Ea. Prince Ea is a rapper whose music tends to be about intellectual topics and social concerns. The premise of this video is that humans are spending so much time online that they are losing touch with reality—with humanity.
I asked my students to respond to the video. I was expecting them to disagree with Prince Ea. To my surprise, they did not. Almost every single student agreed with him. I am not certain they know what to do to change things. But at least they know something needs to change. Some telling responses from my 9th grade students include:
“I was at dinner with my mom last night. We were both on our phones barely talking, and when we both put our phones down, it was harder to come up with things to talk about. I think that if we could do that more often it wouldn't be as hard to communicate with everyone.” This is so true with these teens. When they talk in the halls at school, they often interrupt one another and speak in halting, broken sentences. When writing, they do better. While the statement here is not written perfectly, the point she is making is clear—Generation Z teens need to spend more time talking face-to-face rather than through their electronic devices. Parents need to set the example here and require the family to put away their devices during family time. There is nothing wrong with electronic communication, but talking face-to-face is how kids learn to interpret facial expressions and body language.
“…people are not gonna stop unless someone or something makes them stop. I think that we as a whole could maybe do something to fix this problem.” Elmore suggests that adults need to prepare these teens to solve problems. I see in this student’s statement, that solving these problems may be a desire he has. He would like to fix it, but he implies that he needs help figuring out how. Parents can allow their children to solve problems for themselves, but sometimes children need our help to figure out the best solution.
I especially appreciated this statement, as a very young teen reflects upon her younger brother and the world he is growing up in: “In recent generations, and especially ours, we have shorter attention spans and less ability to communicate orally with others. When I was younger, I never had an iPhone or iPad, so I had to go outside and run around with other kids from my neighborhood from the time the sun came up until it went down. I look at my younger brother today and see that he is on his iPad from the time he wakes up until the time my mom forces him to put it down. Having all of this technology is amazing, but is also doing the newer generation a huge disservice.” His comment defines several problems. Children should get more exercise; they need to use their devices appropriately rather than spending hours and hours on them each day; and they need to reconnect with the world around them.
Parents should encourage their children to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities where electronic devices are not used. I recently spent a week in a rural part of America where none of the children were connected via electronic devices. The kids were outside playing games, running around laughing, and having loads of fun (in the middle of winter). All of us should encourage our kids to spend more time offline.
I have been teaching upper school students for more than 30 years. When I hear concerns about “teenagers these days,” I always think that each generation has its own set of problems—a mix of problems they inherited from the previous generation and a whole new set of problems unique to them. Even so, what teens need today is the same as it has always been: They need caring, loving adults to guide them through the tough times in their lives. No matter how challenging the kids are in my classes, I think about how special they are and how much they have to offer the world. It is my job to help grow them into capable, thinking, empathetic, and responsible adults who can solve the problems they and their children will face. If all of us work together to shape the lives of children, our future will be secure. They can do it, but they need our help.