I just finished danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated (PDF). boyd writes about what kids are doing online and how they think about online spaces. She draws on broader social, cultural, and historical dynamics that shape our language around social networks. I’m interested in how her chapter on addiction to technology connects to some of my recent thoughts and questions. I have another post here about her chapter on digital natives.

First, the language we use matters

How we tell a story often shapes what that story means to others. When business language is used to frame educational issues, only particular kinds of solutions are made available. If students and teachers must be “held accountable,” then we focus on learning “outcomes.” These outcomes must be “measurable,” so they necessitate end-of-year tests. Assuming all growth is linear thus requires setting a beginning point, ergo the recent push for beginning-of-year tests. Acceptance of this logic has resulted in over 20 hours of testing per year for students across the country. If learning is concerned only with “measuring outcomes,” other markers of teaching and learning are occluded - less “measurable” dynamics like creativity, confidence, disciplined inquiry, construction of knowledge, and student voice.

Are kids really ‘addicted’ to technology?

It’s common to hear someone say they are “addicted” to technology. boyd begins Chapter 3 begins with a story of two teens who, dependent on Facebook, make a pact to delete their accounts at the same time. Because they considered themselves “addicted,” their solution was to quit “cold turkey.”

After this vignette, boyd turns to cultural factors that limit teen freedoms - they don’t play outside, take public transportation, or even make their own schedules - and she makes the argument that kids today are coming of age without agency. She points to the fairly recent conception of adolescence, and says that

“in buying into adolescence, what we’ve created is a pressure cooker. Teens are desperate to achieve the full rights of adulthood, even if they don’t understand the responsibilities that this may entail. They are stuck in a system in which adults restrict, protect, and pressure them to achieve adult-defined measures of success” (95).

Reading this, I immediately thought of my students who juggled sports teams, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and caring for younger siblings with the distant college admissions processes informing many of their choices. With limited physical freedoms and an entire social world online, it’s not surprising teens are on their devices so much.

With that said, it can be easy to blame the digital platforms for being distracting:

“When socializing or play results in less sleep or poorer grades, parents blame the technology. Of course, it is easy to imagine that teens may prefer to socialize with friends or relax instead of doing homework, even if these activities are not societally sanctioned. Instead of acknowledging this, many adults project their priorities onto teens and pathologize their children’s interactions with technology” (83).

This is where the addiction narrative makes technology a scapegoat for the various influences buffeting kids. Saying that ‘technology is “addicting” shapes the problem in terms of “unhealthy dependence,” thus leading to quitting and/or abstinence as the only available solutions. Using this language makes it easy to obscure the social and community contexts shaping their use of devices.

As more schools go 1:1 or invite BYOD, we ought to pay attention to our language around technology and youth. If it’s easy to say “kids are addicted” then it will be easy to make a “no cell phones” policy or to take away their devices. I think it’s more complicated than this.

Reframing Our Language around Technology  

First, I look to teachers - how are they thoughtfully incorporating technology into their own practice? Are they taking advantage of the social and collaborative opportunities that mobile devices make possible? How are they inviting the strengths and interests that their students bring into the classroom?

Then, I look to the school and district - are they providing the infrastructure (wireless capability, firewall permissions) and professional development (internal time, external resources) to support teachers? How is administration supporting teacher use of technology

I’m curious how parents are supporting and (are supported by) the technology use in schools.

Framing the question of students and their devices only in terms of individual responsibility ignores the scales of social context at play.

I’m not saying students should be on social media during class, but I am wary of any perspective that frames technology as an “add-on” and assumes that access to Facebook or Twitter is the sole problem at hand. We can acknowledge that social media is distracting (especially if the focus is maintaining traditional school structures and sage-on-the-stage classroom dynamics...).

The devices aren’t going away, and I’m glad they’re not. Their presence pushes us to think about what we want them to be used for. I immediately think about digital citizenship, about empathy, about collaboration, about the power for students to change the world around them. I wonder what we - teachers, administrators, policymakers especially - are making possible for students, both online and off?

Final thoughts, and follow-up reading

I’m interested in the way we use language around youth and technology, and how our language creates contexts, narratives, and policies that enable and empower students, teachers, and schools. This was a thought-provoking chapter of boy’d It’s Complicated, and if you’re interested in more of her broader argument that youth are locked out of public discourse, I would definitely read more. For a preview of some of those chapters, I attached some questions below that I jotted while reading.

For some reading related to boyd’s text, I have created a Flipboard (an online magazine of curated resources), including some amazing work that some youth are doing with support from teachers and schools. I welcome suggestions for like-minded resources and any other comments at @katrinakennett or katrina[at]educationresourcesconsortium[dot]com.

Classroom Corner

A few other topics to consider, especially for conversations with students:

1. [Introduction] boyd talks about four affordances of online activity: persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability. What affects you most now when you post things online, and what do you think will affect you most in the future?

2. [Chapter 2] What does privacy mean on the internet, and what are the privacy settings you choose to use (and not use) - why?

3. [Chapter 5] What is the difference between bullying and ‘drama’? Does someone’s retaliation ‘balance’ the power dynamics at play?

Works Cited

Andersson, A., Hatakka, M., Gronlund, A. K., Wiklund, M. (2013, December). Reclaiming the students – coping with social media in 1:1 schools. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–16. doi:10.1080/17439884.2012.756518

boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.