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The numbers are in. Adolescents (in high school and college) would rather forfeit their "small finger" than give up their cellphone, according to a recent Pew Research report.

The report reveals that these students now place technology in the same "category" as air and water. The virtual world is replacing the real world for many adolescents and 20-somethings.

Case in point: A 24-year-old man from West Virginia recently drove his truck into a river and blamed his GPS for the accident.

He was driving at night toward the Susquehanna River in Bradford County. His GPS told him to keep going even though a sign told him the road ended. Hmm. Do you believe the sign or the GPS? He decided to go with his technology. Sadly, it's the second time this happened in six months in that area.

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What in the world is happening to us?

Avoiding Tech Traps

I was stopped dead in my tracks one morning after reading an interview Steve Jobs gave to New York Times reporter Nick Bilton. Shortly before Jobs passed away, Bilton asked him, "So your kids must love the iPad."

"They haven't used it," Jobs responded. "We limit how much technology our kids use at home."

Steve Jobs said that? Yes, and so do many other tech wizards who live in Silicon Valley. These executives and engineers tend to shield their kids from technology, going so far as to send their children to non-tech schools (where computers can't be found) that focus on hands-on learning. I wonder if these tech leaders understand something the average American doesn't. Somehow, they recognize technology is a marvelous servant, but a horrible master.

It almost sounds cliché, but kids today—from athletes to mathletes—are becoming dependent, even addicted to technology.

The concern with technology and our kids has captured many an imagination. In less than two years, I was privileged to be interviewed multiple times on CNN's HLN News Now program and Fox & Friends to talk about Generation iY and the impact technology has on our kids. As smartphones, tablets, social media and digital strategies reshape the way we educate our students and do our jobs, scientists and psychologists are beginning to question what our dependence on technology is doing to our minds.

In 2013, for the first time in history, "Internet Use Disorder" was listed in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Even in Silicon Valley, there's a growing concern that technology is taking over our lives.

"People feel not just addicted, but trapped," says Stanford psychologist and best-selling author Kelly McGonigal.

Others insist it's not the gadget's fault. We cannot blame our phone or computer for our addictive behavior, for our compulsive need to check for texts or emails at a stoplight or at the dinner table. So who or what is to blame? Let me suggest some ideas:

  • Employers who expect staff members to be available 24/7
  • Our emotional insecurities that require us to see what others are doing 24/7
  • Our culture that makes us feel guilty for taking any time off or away
  • Our human system that responds to technological triggers with a shot of dopamine

Research shows that consistent use of digital devices is actually rewiring our brains. Every time your phone, tablet or laptop pings with a new text, tweet or email, it triggers a sense of expectation, and the reward centers in our brain receive a "squirt of dopamine." Eventually, a brain adapted to these quick fixes shrinks the structures needed for concentration, empathy and impulse control while growing new neurons receptive to speedy processing and instant gratification.

What's more, brain scans of Internet addicts—anyone online more than 38 hours a week—can resemble those of cocaine addicts and alcoholics. Symptoms of Internet addiction range from depression to psychosis.

So, how did we get here, and how is this affecting our kids?

Navigating the Future

The most recent research from Baylor University indicates students are spending close to half their waking hours on smartphones.

Further research has shown that all this screen time is likely to take a toll on their health. A 2013 study from Kent State University showed that students who spent the most time on their cell phones tended to be the least physically active and performed the worst on treadmill exertion tests. This is not a good trend.

Kids today belong to a generation that has never known a world without hand-held and networked devices.

"American children now spend 7.5 hours a day absorbing and creating media, about the same amount of time they spend in school," says author Anya Kamenetz.

What's more, because kids have grown up multitasking, they can cram 11 hours of content into those 7.5 hours. That's more than a day at a full-time job.

Before we jump to conclusions too quickly, however, today's technology is merely a new version of an old challenge. We must learn from our past so we can navigate our future. Allow me to illustrate.

Back in the 1960s, people bemoaned the vices of television. The American public became aware of how much time can be wasted in front of the tube and, worse, how damaging the violence, language and suggestive behavior can be to children. Some Christians even called it "hell-evision." (These concerns surfaced at a time when I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show filled three networks.) Eventually, however, smart people began creating shows like Captain Kangaroo, then Sesame Street and later Blues Clues.

Based on research, producers recognized there were virtues in what many assumed was an "evil" medium. From Sesame Street's debut in 1969, it changed the prevailing mindset about a new technology's potential. People began to realize TV is neutral. It can be used for destructive or constructive purposes.

What I love about this is that educators are finally seeing that just like TV in the 1960s, technology is not evil. Rather, it is a tool that we can harness to teach and to build. Today, our job must be to evaluate what the latest version of technology is capable of—both for good and for harm—then leverage it for redemptive purposes. Because we've not yet done this well, the emotional health and growth of many of our kids has suffered in at least eight ways.

Diminishing Life Skills

1. As our use of technology increases, empathy decreases.

In the last 10 years, empathy levels among college students has dropped by 40 percent. At the same time, we've seen a rise in bullying incidents on and off school campuses. We can find a direct parallel between screen time and a lack of empathy in adolescents. In fact, neuroscientists tell us that without margins in our calendar (with no pings from technology), empathy can't develop. It makes sense, doesn't it? A text that says "I'm having a bad day" doesn't elicit the same empathy as being face-to-face with a person in tears in the midst of a crisis. Our empathy is virtual. Kids often laugh at what they cried about a decade ago.

2. As information expands, attentions spans diminish.

A comparative study was done with Singapore and U.S. students. When given a math word-problem that was two-grade levels above their current position, Singapore students labored an hour before succeeding or giving up. On average, the American students spent a total of 34 seconds on the problem before giving up. While Singapore has found ways to develop soft skills in their students, our resilience, patience and attention spans have dropped. When overwhelmed, we surrender readily. Herbert Simon says it best: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

3. As the range of options broadens, long-term commitment shrinks.    

As mentioned above, our world is overloaded with options: content to watch, music to listen to, things to purchase. With so much variety, we tend to quit current options when new or novel ones surface. It happens with marriages, cars, jobs and teams too. We've conditioned kids to think like "free agents."

4. As life speeds up, patience and personal discipline drop.

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I am less patient than I was several years ago. I don't have to wait to satisfy so many of my wants—from banking transactions to food prep to answers I need. I have a Google reflex.

Studies now indicate that the declines in discipline and work ethic that have crept into our society have had an impact on the ratings of American students as compared to their international counterparts. Our brains work like a muscle. If solutions come easily, that muscle doesn't get a workout; it atrophies.

5. As external stimulation increases, internal motivation decreases.

The average adolescent is disconnected from technology for only one hour a day. Stimulation is streaming, and dopamine is flowing. Our focus groups indicate that this has caused a decrease in internal motivation. Experiments among students show that external rewards actually reduce internal drive and ambition. Kids work for the reward, not the satisfaction of the work. The external stimulation that comes with using digital devices reduces incentive and, consequently, self-sufficiency.

6. As consequences for failure diminish, so does the value of success.

Kids grow up in a world where mistakes and failure often don't carry consequences. They may see a friend commit a crime or cheat on a test and get off easy. They watch people get shot on a video game or TV, but it doesn't mean anything to them. Further, it is common for adults to swoop in and prevent their children from suffering consequences when they fail in school or sports. This desensitizes kids and makes them emotionally uninvolved and unprepared for the real world. If we remove the possibility of failure, ambition to succeed can also evaporate.

7. As virtual connections climb, emotional intelligence declines.

Pew Research Center reports millennials prefer digital interaction to interpersonal conversations. In fact, they also say the use of phones and other mobile devices are allowing them to cut back on their driving. About 40 percent say they substitute texting, email and video chats for meeting up with friends in person. This may mean their first impressions on others are weak, featuring little eye contact, poor listening and communication skills, and a lack of emotional intelligence. Without the use of body language, communication is incomplete.

8. As free content swells, so does our sense of entitlement.

This likely affects all of us but has certainly been verified in K-12 and higher education. Much, but not all, of what kids experience is free: video content, answers online, and even awards and affirmation from adults. It's the law of supply and demand. When there is great supply, there is a reduction of demand. It's easy for us to feel entitled to resources that cost something in the past. Kids may not want to earn an income or pay their dues when answers have been free so far.

Developing Emotional Muscles

Few people saw the unintended consequences of today's technology two decades ago. We can no longer assume emotional muscles will develop naturally in kids, but we must initiate a plan to build those muscles. We must exercise intentionality to develop necessary life skills in the emerging generation by encouraging more time on the following:

  • Interacting with real people
  • Outside in active movement
  • Working and waiting on answers
  • Initiating and less time reacting

May I remind you of some guidelines we can give to our kids or students? They're all based on the "law of reciprocals." Healthy people balance the expansion of technology to keep it a "servant," not a "master." The following are six balancing acts for kids and technology:

1. Always balance tech time with touch time. The same number of hours you spend in front of a screen should be spent with real people, face to face. This cultivates interpersonal skills and the ability to read facial and body language.

2. Always balance technical skills with soft skill development. Employers rarely worry about tech skills in new grads—they worry about their soft skills. These all fit into the category of emotional intelligence and predict future success.

3. For each Instagram or Facebook group you join, throw a party and host it. Have real conversations and make real human connections. This enables you to take initiative with people and learn how to truly serve others.

4. Balance the conversations you have in print (text) with conversations you have in person (verbal). Talking with people is more emotionally taxing but pays dividends as it builds relationship "muscles" and patience with others.

5. For every person you "unfriend" on social media, force yourself to resolve conflict with a person. We live in a disposable world where it's easier to avoid problems than face them. Never end a close relationship through technology. That's cowardice.

6. When present with people, make them a priority over the ones on your phone (unless you agree to reply to an important message). When you check your portable device, you communicate to those around you that there are other people more important than you.

Finding the Way Forward

Pastors, parents and educators who only communicate the evils of technology will likely turn away youth. Instead, why not find ways to use these tools for positive outcomes?

Consider this analogy. Did you realize that part of the reason for the turnaround in high New York City crime rates in the 1990s was that the city's police officers would identify gang members painting graffiti on walls around the various burros, nab the culprits in the act and arrest them? Then they would connect them with employers who needed to hire talented graphic artists. The employers surveyed the graffiti, commented on its virtues and critiqued where it could be improved—then offered the artists a job. Many of those gang members were transformed and began using their once-criminal skills for the benefit of others and got a nice paycheck. Crime was turned into legitimate income. Everybody won.

Why not discuss this with your young people? What are some negative byproducts of technology that could be transformed into something productive, both for the student and for the community? Where could the skill sets of your tech-addicted students be redeemed, moving them from consumer to contributor?

Ultimately, technology is a tool, and young people must make the choice about how they're going to use it. Pastors and other authority figures must come alongside parents in guiding youth in their use of digital devices. Today's tech tools will alter the youth mind only to the degree that they are allowed to do so.


Dr. Tim Elmore is a best-selling author, international speaker and president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps develop emerging leaders under the philosophy that each child is born with leadership qualities. Learn more at growingleaders.com.

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