Teens & Technology: Tuned In or Turned Off?A photo circulating across social media shows a group of teenagers preoccupied with their cell phones as they sit on a bench in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. 

An adult posted this image on Facebook with the words, “We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom.” Many comments included:

“Can’t those kids disconnect from their phones for two seconds? How disrespectful!”

“This explains why kids can’t carry on a decent conversation.”

“That’s what’s wrong with teenagers: They are completely tuned out and turned off from things going on around them.”

Are they? Or is this a modern version of “judging a book by its cover?”

Things aren’t always as they appear. I added a response to the Facebook stream:

Why are the teens focused on their cell phones? Are they taking selfies? Or are they interested in learning more about the artist, Rembrandt? If the artist is Dutch, is he from Holland or the Netherlands (or both?)? Are they inviting friends to the museum? Letting other friends know what part of the museum they’re in? Wondering if they can purchase a poster of “The Night Watch” at the museum gift store? Unlike the painting, the image of the teens offers very little information because we can’t see their cell phone screens. Much of the story is left untold.

Twenty-first century teens grew up with technology – it’s part of how they communicate with one another. The cell phone does not mean that they’re not tuned in; it just means they’re tuned in differently. If we, as adults, are curious – it’s up to us to ask.

As a college instructor, I established very clear rules about cell phone use during class. I seethed when students tried to secretly use their Smartphones during class. I called them out – by name – and asked them to put their cell phones away. Some of them deliberately ignored my instructions …

Teens & Technology: Tuned In or Turned Off?… until I observed their use of mobile devices while they worked on small group projects. Some students looked up definitions of unfamiliar words on their cell phones. Others searched for information related to their projects. Some watched YouTube videos and online PowerPoint presentations with tutorials about how to deliver an engaging presentation. They shared website links with one another via text messaging. They used their phone cameras to video record their deliveries as they practiced their presentations.

I was embarrassed.

What I thought was going on and what was actually going on as students used their mobile devices were two very different things. I am sure a few students used their cell phones to check email or text their friends. However, the number of students who used iPhones and iPads to advance their own learning far outweighed technology abuses.

“I completely misunderstood how you used the technology tools available to you to learn during instruction,” I explained. “Please continue to use these tools if they are helpful as you complete future assignments.”

“Really?” asked one of the students. “I thought you hated cell phones, Dr. Connor.”

“I hate cell phone abuse that interferes with learning and our connections to one another,” I answered. “I have a new perspective as I watched you use technology from the back of the classroom today. I apologize. And thank you.”

We established one more classroom technology rule that was simple: Keep your cell phones away unless you need it.

In the classes that followed, students respectfully muted their cell phones; the screens faced the desks. When one of them picked up their Smartphone, I was excited because I knew they were looking for information that would take learning experiences to a deeper level. Rather than prohibit cell phone and technology use in the classroom, I incorporated its use during instruction and it elevated our academic and relational experiences.

In an episode of Wall Street Journal Live’s Lunch BreakTanya Rivero interviews educators and uncovers how some schools throughout the country spark creativity and learning in classrooms as students use cell phones to complete homework.

Common Sense Media conducted a study and found that 50% of the surveyed teens admitted they were addicted to their mobile devices. Furthermore, 27% of the parents surveyed admitted their own mobile device addictions – and teens agreed. To be honest, I experienced many more cell phone abuses and mobile device disengagement when I taught adult students over 30 than teens and millennials. I believe this is due to the fact that teens and millennials are much more familiar with all of the technological advantages that cell phone use offers to them.

There is so much to learn from teens about technology! For example, many young people create YouTube videos to explain how to use and post photos on Snapchat. Or use hashtags on Instagram. They can show you how to create and edit a video on YouTube or start your own YouTube channel. Questions become gateways to conversations – and conversations deepen relationships.

Although mobile devices offer detours and provide users with a means of escape, adults often assume teens are more interested in connections with their cell phones than in personal face-to-face conversations. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teens are starving for opportunities to build relationships – with adults and with one another. It’s up to adults to invite communication.

Positive communication starts with a dialogue.

In what positive ways are you connecting with the young people in your life?


Teens have a lot to say. Are you listening? Tune into their conversations with tips from Hear the Voices of Our Youth.

Encourage youth to explore their passions. Discover Why We Must Talk to Young People About Their Dreams.

Use these suggestions from How to Be a Good Role Model to pump up the example you want to inspire teens.

If you want to involve more young people in your organization, check out these tips from What You Must Do to Invite & Involve Youth (So They Want to Stay).


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