In my 20-plus years of mentoring teens and parents, I have never seen a greater disconnection between teens and their natural environment than I do now. When I was young, I got up in the morning, walked to my friend’s house or called her on a phone that was attached to a wall, and made plans to get together. We didn’t care what we were doing as long as we were together. I have great memories of being outdoors, chewing on blades of grass and picking tangerines off a tree—then eating too many! Sometimes we would go to the local mall, hang out, laugh and be silly. We were never bored! My daughters were the same way when they were young: they got together with friends, they rode their bikes for hours, and generally entertained themselves.
Today, what I am seeing is teens spending much of their time on their cell phones, sending pictures through Instagram, Snap Chatting, messaging through Facebook and texting. Even when today’s teens do get together, it seems they’re not talking to each other. Instead, they are texting with someone else on their phones.
The number one complaint I hear from parents is: My teen spends way too much time on her phone. She never talks to me and when she’s home, she doesn’t leave her room. If I try to limit the use of her phone, she has a complete meltdown. Conversely, the teen’s complaint is: My parents are always trying to take my phone away!
Parents used to get their children a cell phone to make it easier to contact them when they weren’t together. Now parents buy them smart phones. Why does a twelve year old need such constant contact with the internet?
There are many issues wrapped around teens having smart phones and too much access to the internet. One I’d like to address is the disconnection teens experience with themselves, others and nature because of their obsession with social media.
When we are absorbed in a compulsive relationship with an object that serves as a way to connect us with others, an unhealthy social disconnection seems to arise. Communication becomes fragmented, and the use of the five senses is watered down. The body perceives external stimuli through the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. When young people spend a large amount of time with a piece of technology, such as a phone, what senses are being activated? Sight is limited to what is on the screen. The sense of smell isn’t activated by the environment. Hearing is reduced to listening for the pinging noise that lets one know there’s another message. Taste becomes stale—the mouth hasn’t opened for hours because they aren’t talking. And touch is no more than the handling of a hard piece of material that has no warmth or feeling.
Before the internet and social media were a part of daily life, we found different ways to entertain ourselves. We were engaging all of our senses throughout the day. When I was young, sitting outside in the grass talking with a friend engaged all five senses.
I think we all want a connection with the earth and each other. When we aren’t connected, we feel alone and isolated, leaving us with an unnameable sadness. Even though teens say they are feeling connected because they are communicating with their friends 24/7, what are the some of the downsides of not connecting face to face? One is the current rise of teen depression. More and more teens are complaining of being unhappy and depressed. I believe this is associated with a false sense of connection through social media that has replaced real opportunities to be with each other, especially in nature.
Scientific research has shown the benefits of being outdoors. A study conducted by the University of Essex and published by the metal health organization Mind, found that taking a walk in nature can reduce depression by as much as 71 percent. The medical community also recognized that too much screen time can make it difficult to sleep at night due to eyestrain and other side effects. Additionally, damage to the retina has been associated with prolonged exposure to the blue light that emanates from screens.
A study published by Computers in Human Behavior noted the differences exhibited by sixth graders after a five-day period during which some were allowed access to phones, television and computers and others were sent to the Pali Institute, an outdoor education camp in Running Springs, California. Those who went to the Pali Institute did not have access to technology and showed significantly better perception at reading human emotions and other non-verbal cues than those who continued to use their devices.
In my practice I have definitely noticed a difference between youth who are dependent on technology and those who are not. The teens that are limited in their use of technology tend to engage more in personal interaction, seem more passionate about their environment, and tend to participate more in retreats and mentoring. The high-use social media teens seem to have less passion for life and energized by posting selfies.
I created a little exercise recently with a few of my mentees asking them to alter their technology usage.
My first mentee was a 17 year old who is studying to finish high school early and begin college sooner. She has a lot of stress in her life, not only because of school but also because her family life is very difficult. She said it was taking longer to finish her homework because of the frequent interruptions on her phone. I asked her to try putting her phone in another room for a week and turning it off during her study time. At first, she was very resistant to this idea because she felt like she might miss something. But she did it anyway, and she said that her stress diminished dramatically and was much more productive, getting her homework done in half the time. But the biggest shift for her was she felt less anxious and happier. She said she was going to start limiting her cell phone use and turning it off on a much more frequent basis.
Another teen came to one of my mother/daughter three-day retreats. In this retreat, I ask for a commitment to not use cell phones or other devices. I noticed on the first day, this teen had her phone close by, and she would look at it quiet often. I reminded her of the commitment to not use her phone, and she said she had not personally committed to that. However, after I discussed this with her, she seemed to not engage with the phone as much. That day, we did great work and had many breakthroughs. That evening, the three of us sat down to watch a beautiful sunset. Rather than interacting with us and enjoying the view, this teen was busy taking selfies and posting them.
Her mother and I continued to connect and enjoy each other’s company. I noticed a shift in her attitude for the worse after her mother mentioned the teen’s lack of participation in our group activity. The next morning her daughter seemed to be in a bad mood and was complaining about being bored. When I asked her what she wanted to do, she had no ideas. I realized that there was an addiction going on with social media. The only thing she wanted to do was be connected to her phone. She has total meltdowns when her mother limits her phone.
I believe her guilt about being on the phone was upsetting her and she was acting out. The next day, I scheduled a ropes course, a team building activity in nature where the teen wouldn’t be able to have her phone. When they returned from the course, she had light in her eyes and was so excited. Her mother said she was a totally different person.
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, This is what it is to be happy.
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
My third teen was very attached to her phone. Her mother felt her inability to be present with the family was becoming a problem. They were planning a boating trip, and she was not allowed to bring her phone. I asked the mother to observe her daughter and tell me about any changing behaviors. This is what she reported.
“When we got to the boat, she went for a book and laid down on the bow to read. She then actually fell asleep and took a nap. Wow, that would never happen at home! There was a fatigue, a letting go, and a relaxation that couldn’t occur with the connection to technology. We have only been on the boat two days and she has been calmer, kinder and overall more pleasant. She is less concerned with her appearance. She wants to play board games and is reading more. She is swimming with curiosity about what’s below and spending time just on the dock. She wanted to buy a yoga mat to stretch on the dock when she saw me do it. She has been going to bed much earlier and her face looks more relaxed. She is more relaxed!”
Technology overuse and the ensuing disconnection it creates is a real and challenging issue. But the obvious question is: why are parents so afraid to limit cell phone use, especially when the benefits of not being engaged all the time are so positive for their children’s health and well being? Limiting use will allow them to connect with others, with themselves, and enliven their innate curiosity and concern for the natural world around them. They deserve that healthy start and the perspective it brings.
Downsides of being connected to social media:
- Happiness becomes dependent on other’s approval and is difficult to sustain
- Social media breeds a false sense of connection
- It keeps us from being present in the moment
- It diminishes real experience with the world and the people in it
Upsides to being in nature:
- It feeds our senses and our soul
- It decreases depression
- It aides in reading people’s emotions better
- It promotes curiosity
- It’s relaxing and breeds a sense of calm and well-being