Thoughts from 30,000 feet

AT Staff23 Jul, 2011

Greetings from another Delta Jet! I have loved meeting hundreds of students from 11 different trips since I last wrote. I may recount some of these adventures later. I remain incredibly impressed with our Adventure Treks students and instructors this summer. We are having a lot of fun! Who knows summer may have finally come to the Northwest, too! I thought I’d share some observations and thoughts as I enjoy my time with teenagers…

My blackberry has a pull on me that is both seductive and addictive. I have to set firm limits. But I still find myself resisting sneaking a peek when conversing with others. The Smart Phone has fundamentally changed how we run Adventure Treks and that has been good. Believe it or not we used to communicate back and forth by answering machine in the early 90’s. Cell phones were expensive, used only for emergencies (like our use of Sat phones now) and could only reach you within your area code. Back in the “old days” My instructors also needed to know how to read a map (they still do in the backcountry) but one couldn’t plug the destination into the “Tom Tom” in their van and instantly know (with 95% accuracy) reasonable directions, the location of the nearest grocery store for “freshies” and where we could get the most affordable fuel. Putting “expert” information directly in the hands of our instructors has significantly cut down phone calls to the office and our regional directions and let us focus more on serving our students. Instant communication has consistently helped us make better decisions. To this extent, technology is great!

While knowing where the cheapest gas is important especially this summer, I worry about the effect this technology is having on our kids. This generation of kids are “digital natives” which means they never knew a life without the internet. With the rapid change of technology each 3-4 year cohort is growing up with a different digital world view.

As we tried to facilitate “get to know you” conversations between shy 13 year old boys nervously beginning their first AT trip, yesterday, I was not surprised that the first question some were asking each other was “what video games do you play?” (It was already a given that they had all seen Harry Potter) This is a much more frequent question, than students asked each other 5 years ago and a different question then they asked ten years ago.

On the final night on an Adventure Treks trip, we have to be very careful about how we return technology to our students. We strongly discourage them from checking in with their outside friends or checking texts and Facebook until they get to the airport. They can call home and load their AT friends into their address books and Facebook accounts but as soon as they check their messages and email, we have to work hard not to “lose them” as they fight the return to their digital world. I always hate to watch this happen, as I am naturally much more partial to a world where everyone is communicating face to face and this communication is enhanced through immersion in nature.

A typical teenager sends over 3000 texts per month (4000 per teenage girl and 2500 per boy) there’s been a 6% rise in 2010 over 2009. That averages to over 100 texts per day. Voice usage is down and a plurality of teen say the number one reason they own a phone is to text. 43% of teenage girls actually sleep with their phone and many check email and texts in the middle of the night.

Obviously all this texting comes at a cost. It means when texting or checking emails we are probably multi tasking (though this generation can multi task much better than I) which means focus may be drifting from where it’s indented to be. I question whether constant communication by text will affect teens’ ability to communicate when conversations become difficult. I remember communication with my camp friends by letter. Those days are long gone and that is a good thing. Facebook strings keep our AT students connected and in a much better and more current way than the letter did 35 years ago.

A conversation with a nervous girl one opening day in Portland sums up my fear of our reliance on digital communication. “Can I please bring my cell phone on the van with me?” she implored. “No we are cell phone free form this point on,” I said trying not to sound too flip. You have so many wonderful people to meet in the van, I would hate for you to be distracted. These people are going to become some of your best friends. “

“But there are bound to be some awkward silences, the girl responded, when I feel them, I can text a friend from home and then I won’t feel so awkward.”

Are kids still learning to communicate face to face? Are they able to empathize with others and listen to and understand a different point of view? or are they relying on their hand held devices as a digital security blanket. Can teens effectively communicate in 160 character blocks? Are we losing nuance, body language and often the courage to look people in the eyes and reflect back their feelings? These are valid questions but the research has not yet been conducted. In a time of rapid change, we are in a real life experiment and we won’t know the answers until the damage may already been done.

I also worry about video games. Kids are getting softer. We see it in the field. Over the years, we have had to make our backpacks less challenging. It is a generalization but students are not in as good a shape as they were 10 years ago. Data is also coming out beginning to show that excessive video game use affects brain development in adolescent boys and can affect motivation and decision making.

I feel that the Adventure Treks experience is a great antidote. Three weeks away from text messages and electronic games has a soothing effect. Our evening meetings give every student a chance to address issues face to face. There is time to listen, empathize with others and communicate in the same ways we have been for the past ten thousand years. Life immersed in the elements can give real life consequences and thus learning opportunities.

Now our mission is to make the Adventure Treks experience, the best, most relevant and most fun experience in a young person’s life, so that they can see that there are some alternatives in a technology driven world!


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