My seven-year old dog, Liam, and my 16-month old son, Colton, are in a relentless competition that begins the moment I wake up every morning and lasts until bedtime.
Both want the same thing and they do not want to share it. They will do anything to get it. All of it. All the time. Liam’s strategies include barking, whining, taking things he is not supposed to, bringing gifts (most recently a woodchuck), nuzzling, growling, and chewing on my arm.
Colton’s strategies are similar — crying, whining, taking things he is not supposed to; asking to be picked up, put down, picked up, put down; giggling; screaming; making fake choking noises; dropping things off the balcony; climbing on me; and squeezing my nose.
The thing they both want, of course, is my complete, sustained, and undivided attention.
It’s not unlike another competition I face every day — the pitched battle that mobile tech, app, and gaming companies are engaged in for the very same thing: my attention. As much of it as they can get.
Unlike my dog and my boy, however, these technologies are not necessarily life-giving. I want to give as much attention as possible to Liam and to Colton. Hugging, playing, teaching, engaging; it’s good for them and it’s good for me. I want to do as much of that stuff as I can while, of course, taking care of my other relationships and responsibilities. Most of the apps competing for my time, however, are at best convenient. At worst, they are invasive, manipulative, vacuous, and addictive.
The other difference is that my little buddies use simple and obvious strategies to get my attention. I see them for what they are and can make conscious decisions about how to budget my attention. I can engage and disengage at will — boo boos, empty water bowls, and dirty diapers notwithstanding.
But how in control am I of the attention I give to my cell phone? As Google ethicist Tristan Harris has made known in his popular TED talks, well-resourced mobile-technology companies hire teams of behavioral scientists, psychologists, and engineers to devise attention-sucking tactics that attempt to bypass the decision making controls of our prefrontal cortex through dings, beeps, Skinnerian “like” buttons, auto-played videos, shocking photos and headlines (aka “click-bait”), popups, et cetera. They utilize gambling psychology, neuroscience, behavior modification, and addiction research to trigger the same irresistible, but unsatisfying, dopamine flush that hooks people on drugs, alcohol, and junk food. Liam and Colton trigger a hormonal response too. But the oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin that our interactions release are good for us.
Another somewhat ironic difference between my beloved companions and my technology is that I can more easily leave the former than the latter. I use my mobile phone for work, for connecting with friends and family, for reading the New York Times, and for my 24/7 on-call responsibilities as a head of school. It’s always charged, always on, and always with me. My wife, Beth, and I have each other as well as baby sitters and dog sitters to provide attention when we cannot. And unlike my phone, Colton and Liam routinely take naps and sleep through the night (usually).
Despite the obvious moral inequivalence, I have a harder time setting boundaries around my phone than my family. So do most of my peers. Recently, I instituted a “no cell phones” policy during my weekly leadership team meetings because our attention was so sorely divided. Passing the “phone bowl” around met with so much desperate resistance that I gave up (for now) after trying it twice. If a group of adult professionals — educators, no less — can’t bear to be without their phones for two hours a week, then adolescents, with their less developed and less practiced prefrontal cortices, are even more vulnerable to the siren’s song of mobile technology.
But just how serious is the problem? How much should we care that mobile technologists are competing for our teen’s attention and what should we do about it? It might first be useful to put this question in a longer context. Plato railed against widespread reading for fear that it would destroy memory. Telephones were once viewed as a threat to writing and quality correspondence. Sitting too close to the television, I was told when growing up, might make me blind. Mobile tech is the new bogeyman of declensionists, blamed in advance of conclusive data for everything from impotence to obesity to ADHD to POTUS. But what are the real risks and what should we do to mitigate them? Should we delete all of our social media apps as Jaron Lanier exhorts?
I suspect the answer, except in cases of true addiction, is not to simply ban mobile phones, as some schools do. A more instructive approach is to first set broad, flexible, commonsense parameters that are based on wellness and manners. For instance, phones off an hour before bedtime to avoid sleep disruption. Phones either turned off or turned face down and silenced during classes, meals, performances and such, to encourage engagement and prevent “phubbing.”
From there, everyone’s use or abuse of tech will be different, based on their peculiar neurology and life experience. With a few broad universal parameters as a starting point, the next step is to monitor the overall wellness and social functioning of individual students. Are they connecting well to others, are they anxious, how is their hygiene, are they making it to class on time, are they physically active and healthy, and how might technology be a factor in all this? This approach allows the natural consequences of misuse to percolate and create discomfort for the young person so that we can engage in collaborative problem solving with them. Our role, then, is to coach, course correct, adjust parameters as needed, and engage in instructive global dialogue instead of narrow power struggles. It also allows us to put the emphasis on function instead of dysfunction; “let’s play frisbee” may be a more powerful way to regulate mobile phone use than simply telling a student to put their phone away.
This individualized approach — positioned in the grey zone between permissiveness and authoritarianism — is the harder one. It requires more of that precious and limited resource that everyone seems greedy for: our attention. But in this case, it’s a good investment of that resource because it fosters connection, dialogue, respect, and care — like the attention I love giving to Liam and Colton. It’s a better way not only because it involves engagement, but because it fosters the kind of reflection, critical thinking, and self-management that our young people will need in order to thrive as independent young adults. As a bonus, it’s good for us, as educators and parents, because it requires that we practice what we preach; the better way does not work in the absence of credible leadership.
With that in mind I’m getting out the phone bowl again, and soon! Please don’t tell my leadership team!