My Teenager Can’t Focus: The Downside of Cell Phones
If you’re a parent, educator, or just a keen observer of the world around you, you’ve probably made the following observation: “Kids are on their phones a lot these days.” That’s not just an idle thought. As a matter of fact, it’s very much backed up by statistics.
Here are some figures that give an idea of just how ubiquitous cell phone usage is among children:
- 56 percent of children between 8 and 12 have a cell phone.
- 89 percent of teens use social media.
- 91 percent of teens use their mobile devices to get online.
- 1/3 of teens feel more accepted online than in real life.
Given these numbers, it’s no wonder that 50 percent of teens report feeling “addicted” to their mobile devices. And that number may be low; 59 percent of parents report that their teenage children are addicted to cell phones.
Unfortunately, this addiction may be causing damage well beyond the frustration of trying to get kids to look up from their phones and engage in conversation. That’s because more and more research is coming out that shows that constant cell phone usage reduces attention span, worsens performance on various cognitive tasks, and degrades the quality of real life face-to-face interactions.
If you’ve asked yourself, “How long can a teenager concentrate?” and found yourself shocked by the answer, there’s data to back that up too.
A study at the University of Southern Maine, led by psychologist Bill Thornton, found what a difference a cell phone can make while trying to complete difficult tasks. Two groups of students were asked to take a statistics test. The first group was told to keep their cell phone on their desks, while the other group was told to keep their phones out of sight.
Even though neither group used their phones during the test, the simple presence of a cell phone caused a large disparity in test results. The phone-on-the-desk group averaged 21 of 30 correct answers while the no-phone group averaged 26.
The finding was similar to that of a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. This time, researchers looked at the effect of the presence of a cell phone on face-to-face conversations. They found that conversations where phones were present caused both parties to say there was less trust and that it was of a lower quality than conversations in which phones were absent.
Looking at this complete picture, we see a scary trend. Cell phone usage is becoming more widespread among teens, even though we know that it worsens cognitive ability and interpersonal communication. (And that’s not to even touch on cyberbullying, sexting, or any of the other major problems that have arisen with increased cell phone usage.)
To this end, various “digital detoxes” for adults have been sprouting up. Kate Unsworth, CEO of Kovert Designs, organized a trip for 35 business professionals to Morocco with one catch…they wouldn’t be using any electronics. Here’s some of what she observed:
- Conversation is better without Google. Without knowing the answers to questions, people take longer to discuss, debate, and even guess at solutions. This leads to deeper conversations as well as insight into other peoples’ thinking.
- Sound sleep. Scientists have long known that blue light from screens makes us feel more alert, but many of us still take our phones and laptops into bed with us. Once disconnected, the people on the trip all reported feeling more rested in the morning.
- Better posture. Without constantly tilting their heads forward to check screens, the people on Unsworth’s trip all started to straighten up and look people directly in the eye when they spoke. This resulted in relaxed and sincere conversations.
Break the Addiction
The answer, as Unsworth discovered, is to go cold turkey. That’s why as soon as students arrive at SuperCamp, they hand in their cellphones, tablets, and MP3 players. During their stay with us, students have about 15 minutes a day of screen time which they usually use to communicate with family and friends back home.
At first, this strikes some of our students as unnecessarily stringent. But having our students truly live in the moment, free of outside distractions, has shown to have huge benefits. If you’re pulling your hair out because your teenager can’t focus, you might be pleasantly surprised in the change you see in your student after SuperCamp.
To understand why we are so strict about cell phone and electronics usage here at SuperCamp (especially as opposed to some other summer camps that allow students to keep their phones), I should tell you a little about another one of our 8 Keys of Excellence: This Is It. We define this principle as remembering to make the most out of every moment. Though this might sound like basic or even clichéd advice, it’s surprising how many of our students come to us not used to spending time in the “here and now.”
More specifically, constantly being plugged in makes it hard to be present with peers, focused on a new cognitive challenge, or even empathetic to those around us. Since many of our exercises and activities are done in groups and encourage collaborative thinking, it’s doubly important that our students are unplugged. It’s when new perspectives are shared and new voices are heard that our students learn to think outside of their default frameworks.
As someone who has seen just how much teens value their cell phones, I know my SuperCamp team and I have accomplished something truly special when teens begin to hear and see beyond their cell phones.