“These teens were experiencing for the first time what it is like to be cut off from some of the most sophisticated distraction methods ever devised.”

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The Guardian asked a group of teenage volunteers to stop using social media for as long as they could manage. They all found it extremely difficult, but they also all noted benefits from the experience. In the end, none could imagine living without their mobile devices. The article is worth the read. Here are some excerpts:

“Two-thirds of 12- to 15-year-olds in the UK now own a smartphone. For older teens, the figure is 90%. Under-16s spend an average of three hours a day online, which overtook time spent watching television for the first time this year. They watch videos on YouTube, scroll through Instagram (400 million users worldwide), post on Facebook (1.5 billion) and hang out on Snapchat (100 million). Their adolescence will be shaped in ways that are significantly different from the experiences of their parents, most of whom will wonder about the impact of so much screen time.

In 2001, the US author Marc Prensky invented the term “digital native” to describe the post-millennial generation who would grow up in an online world. “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet,” he wrote. The term quickly became shorthand for describing the experience of children and adolescents, but it also became open to misinterpretation.

“It concerns me when you hear people in government or education throwing that term around,” says Emma Cooper, of digital media agency Rocket and The Children’s Media Conference. “There’s an implication that they have an inherent understanding of technology. But while they might understand what buttons to press, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to use it. My nine-year-old has hacked our Netflix account, but that doesn’t mean he’s emotionally ready to watch something that’s certified 12.”

“This generation of teenagers may have agile thumbs, but most have no memory of life before the internet was constantly available in the palm of your hand. Spending two to three hours a day on social media has become the new normal; what would life be without it? We asked a group of teenage volunteers to go on a social media fast for as long as they could manage.

Some of the changes they noticed were physical. “I got to sleep earlier,” Esther Laver, 16, says. “It was nice having more time – but then there were times when I felt like I couldn’t unwind, because I wasn’t using social media to relax.” Most of the teens said their sleep habits changed, although some also reported reaching for their phones in the middle of the night, before realising what they were doing. A study of Welsh secondary school pupils published last year found that a fifth of the 12- to 15-year-olds analysed woke almost every night to use social media.

We asked our group to map their moods, scoring how they felt throughout the day, with one being very negative and 10 being very positive. Several reported that, for the first few evenings, their scores were around two or three. “Even though I was able to catch up on some revision, the anxiety of being without social media really got to me,” says Janice Da Costa, 18, from London. “Everything moves so fast – I hated not knowing what was going on.”

Being bored and feeling isolated were mentioned over and over again; these teens were experiencing for the first time what it is like to be cut off from some of the most sophisticated distraction methods ever devised. “We live in an attention economy,” says Elsa Bartley, a user experience designer for a large social media platform for adults. “People in my industry are constantly talking about engagement: how do we keep people engaged, what info do they need? How do we give it to them at the right time?” Everything about platforms such as Facebook is designed to keep you coming back. They tap into our very basic needs – the desire for social bonding, the fascination with information that is relevant to us. “It’s very powerful, that feeling that everything you’re seeing on social media is basically connected to you,” Bartley says.

Several of our teenagers said that after the initial adjustment, they felt happier without social media; but when they were given the option to switch back on, they took it. “I can’t imagine life without it,” Da Costa. For this generation, social media is where they make sense of the world. It is increasingly where everything that is important to them is taking place. Going online is no longer the thing you do to take a break from real life. It is real life.

Further quotes from the article:

“I sleep with my phone on my pillow. It’s the first thing I reach for when I wake up in the morning… if I got a brain tumour, I’d have something to tweet about!” – Henry, 16

“I told my friends I was turning off my social media on Tuesday, then I switched it off on Wednesday after school. I was really worried about getting bored, so I asked my mum if we could go out shopping. On Thursday, I went out after school, and again on Friday, just to keep myself distracted. On Saturday morning, my mates had to come round and knock on my door to get me. It was funny being out without my phone, because I don’t have a watch, so I had to keep asking my friends what the time was. My notifications were going off all the time, but I couldn’t look at them. It was pretty hard. Then on Sunday, I could see that they were all about playing football and I just thought, “I can’t not look”, so I turned everything back on. – Sam, 14

“Getting rid of social media made me feel more positive, more optimistic, but it’s still hard to do without it. When you’re bored, it’s the easy option. You just open it up and it’s there. For a few weeks after I finished the experiment, I would sometimes delete my apps for an hour or so. I guess that improvement is better than nothing.” – Anna, 13

“I wouldn’t turn it off again. Even though I was more productive, I felt a lot more isolated. I’ve always seen myself as someone who can hold a good conversation, but I didn’t realise how much I relied on Messenger, and that shocked me. Without it, I just couldn’t connect with people.” – Henry, 16, again

“For the first couple of days, I was grumpy, but the more I did it, the happier I felt. I think maybe because I wasn’t worrying as much about what I looked like in selfies and things like that. I was pleased to get it back, though, because I missed my old routine. I still want it in my life.” – Leah, 14

All excerpts from ‘I worried people would forget about me’: can teenagers survive without social media?, Rosie Ifould, The Guardian, 18 Jun 2016

If you found this article of interest, you likely will enjoy ‘Dysconnected’, a book of illustrations and quotes that encourages one to be mindful about how we are using our cellphones:

dysc cover

see: http://dysconnected.com

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