We sat in the diner restaurant late one night, blowing straw wrappers at each other and enjoying milkshakes after a youth event at church. On a whim, I suggested that we take a group of middle schoolers to a theme park near us the next weekend.
It was then that I saw something that definitely didn't happen when I was a teenager:
Every single student at the table whipped out their cell phones, opened their calendar applications, and started listing off the complicated plans and commitments they already had for that next weekend.
Amidst the excitement about spending time together were groans of, "Oh, I have two soccer games that Saturday, and then a birthday party afterwards," and "Well, I have a band competition starting at seven in the morning and going until that evening," and "I could go after my volleyball tryouts for a few hours, before I work on my project with my work group from school."
Maybe the fact that they immediately pulled out their phones and started ticking off schedules doesn't strike you as odd. But these are thirteen and fourteen-year olds.
For a moment, let's disregard the fact that their pre-teen schedules clearly compete with mine--an adult who doesn't get up early for school, practice every day for at least one sports team, and require extra sleep for a growing body.
What caused me pause was the realization that these young teens are completely immersed in technology--to the fact that they can't even make tentative plans without immediately checking their availability, not needing to consult a parent or even move from their seats.
I'm sure that there will be a bevy of studies someday that give us an understanding of the impact technology has had (and will have) on our generation. But what I'm curious about is how I see technology influencing our everyday middle schooler--the good, the bad, and the ugly effects--right now, at this very moment.
As a twenty-something who's currently typing on a laptop and listening to music from my iPhone, I'd be the first to admit that technology has a heck of a lot of benefits. It's made communication easier than ever, and I can network with friends across the world. I'm closer than ever with my family and friends, able to text them a photo or random thought whenever I fancy. I can share projects easily, and save unimaginable amounts of money and valuable time by downloading books and journals and attending web casts from the comfort of my own office. I can virtually shop, and can compare prices on products to get a deal on nearly anything I want. Setting up events or plans (and advertising them to big networks) takes merely a few clicks, with social media sites and websites readily available for me to work on at any time of the day.
In a very real sense, technology has brought our world closer. It's brought injustice to light, enabled revolutions to mobilize, and made us all more aware of each other.
But what about the negative effects of technology? I've experienced more than my fair share of one-sided conversations, where teens won't even make eye contact with me as they text furiously on their phones. I know plenty of people (adults included!) who frivolously waste hours on websites and online games, as well as people who spend vast amounts of time perfecting photo albums to share with the world.
On top of all of this is the fact that one student pointed out to me: "The expectations of us now have exceeded human possibility." With the speed of technology increasing so rapidly, our patience is dissolving. We want quick responses, quick answers, and quick solutions. This means we race at an ever-increasing rate to produce, leading to stress and burnout.
Of course, technology has plenty of ugly effects. Pornography and other harmful information is rampant and a temptation to even the most resolute young teen. Social media sites feed our narcissistic natures, which run unchecked. The concept of a real flesh-and-blood friend is slowly being eroded, as we value their half-hearted attention via text or online chat as a replacement for a heartfelt conversation in person. Teens are often consumed by jealousy and discontent as they watch others get all the "best toys", and the inevitable dropping of phones and iPods on the floor usually leaves kids in tears, as they gather up the broken pieces.
What's my gut reaction to all of this?
I think our teens are realizing that technology is a love/hate relationship. And the more they rely on technology in their everyday lives, I think the more they unknowingly crave a release from it.
In the last few months, I've had half a dozen teens tell me they're fed up with Facebook and want to get rid of it completely. I've also had kids confide in me that they've just plain "given up" in trying to keep up with the texts they get from friends. Often, when we return from events like retreats or mission trips, where kids aren't allowed to bring their phones, I have teens furtively confess that they don't even want to get their phone back, because it's so stressful to keep up with the constant demands that accompany it.
So what can we do to help our young teens resist technology taking over too much of their lives? I think there are many simple solutions. First of all, it's important for us to model moderation to them. When I arrive home from work, I usually toss my phone down and don't look at it until late that evening. Students have learned that if they really need to get in touch with me, they can call me--otherwise, I don't automatically return texts as soon as they roll into my inbox.
When I'm hanging out with kids or leading events, I resist the urge to check my phone every few minutes. I demand the full attention of my students when I'm talking to them or teaching them. I'll take a phone away if someone is engaged in a gadget rather than real life--which has rarely happened, as kids truly enjoy giving their fingers and eyes a rest once in a while.
I also think it's important to provide a place where kids can disconnect. At our youth events, I make a point to tell students that this is a place to kick back and relax, and we have a strict "no cell phones allowed" policy on our trips. We frequently discuss the effects of social media sites and constant demands on our lives, and spend time talking about how true fulfillment is found in Christ, not in the next best gadget.
As much as I love the fact that I can access a Bible on my phone, I prefer to sit with a group of middle schoolers and crack open a hardcover Bible with them, and watch them discover God's incredible love themselves. In our technology-saturated world, nothing can substitute for a real relationship that's grounded in love. And that love can only come from a good, old-fashioned relationship with our Father in Heaven.
In my opinion, the beauty of our lightning-fast technological advances is that we ourselves remain the same, with desires and passions and needs just like those who lived thousands of years before us. We all want to be loved and known; we crave purpose and meaning.
In Psalm 139, we learn that our Father delicately "knit us together" and that each one of us is "fearfully and wonderfully made." John 3:16 reveals that God loved us so much that He gave up His only Son for us, that we might "not perish but have eternal life." Jeremiah 29:11 tell us that God has a "plan" for us and that He has "plans to prosper" us and gives us a "hope and a future."
No matter what gadgets end up on wish lists in the future, these incredible truths remain eternal.
And that's certainly something worthy to text, tweet, and post about.