Technology ‘time suck’: Putting down devices is hard, but some are trying to find balance


With a cell phone, you hold your life in your hand. Phone numbers, passwords, to-do lists and the picture from the time you posed with the cutest guy in school.

But phones can also be a huge distraction. You’re sitting across from your friend having a heart-to-heart. Instead of looking into your eyes, she’s looking at her phone, laughing at the text her boyfriend sent.

“Hello,” you say. “You getting this?”

“I am, I am. Proceed,” she says, typing an answer to his text.

Three friends from Washburn High School in Minneapolis decided to do something to counter such irritation. On certain occasions, they store their phones in one room and move to another to focus on the face-to-face.

Hannah Gordon, 16, said the idea originated at a sleepover, when the girls realized they were staring at their phones, “doing our own thing.” Because they’d been so connected to their phones, they hadn’t even talked to each other while sitting in the same room.

Emma Stotts, 16, doesn’t blame technology, but instead focuses on the self-control aspect of it.

“I used to be really distracted by my phone,” she said. “I’ve learned to use it for things that are really helpful.”

Rosa Johnson, 15, said she believes that technology takes away from teenagers’ social abilities. “Meeting on the Internet is easier than meeting in person,” she said.

Johnson also said cell phones and social media are becoming addictive and people often don’t realize all of the effects.

Right: Washburn High School students Emma Stotts (top), Hannah Gordon (middle) and Rosa Johnson (bottom) are all trying to balance social face-to-face time with the need to check their phones or post updates on Twitter. (Photos by Aidan Haarma)

Turning it off

Trent Mitchell, a video production teacher at Shorecrest High School in Shoreline, Wash., conducted what he called “The Social Experiment” in winter 2010. He assigned students in his class to go a week without using electronic devices.

When he told the students about his idea, he said about half of them wanted no part of it, while the other half embraced the challenge.

After two or three days, Mitchell said about half of the students quit the experiment. Some said they didn’t want to do it; others simply couldn’t handle being without technology.

Once the week ended, Mitchell said that most of the students who made it through the first three days also made it through the week.

“They needed to get over that hump at the beginning,” he said.

“The thing we were looking for wasn’t that they would change, but so that they would understand how much they rely on technology. There were a few students that said, ‘Maybe I don’t need to be on Facebook 24/7’ or ‘Maybe I don’t need to have my phone on me all the time.’ It’s OK to unplug for a little bit. That wasn’t the common reaction.”

Mitchell also said he and other staff realized how much they, too, relied on technology.

Sending that message to teens and adults is the goal of Tech Time Out, a North American program implemented by Foresters Life Insurance Company in Canada.

Tech Time Out encourages families to go technology-free for an hour a day by signing an online pledge, then printing it out to be posted in the house as a “constant reminder of your commitment to family time.”

“The average home has about 24 different consumer media and communication devices,” said Foresters spokeswoman Teresa Pavlin. “So, it’s not unusual for every member of the family to be on their own device even if they’re in the same house or the same room, kind of ignoring the face-to-face.”

Finding balance

Perhaps no one knows the effects better than Amanda Lenhart, who studies how teens use technology for Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Lenhart also has teenagers. It bothers her that some families spend 13 hours a day using electronic devices.

“We should be thinking about what we’re exchanging in our lives for that screen time,” Lenhart said.

“I also think it’s an issue of, ‘Who do you want to be?’ If it’s really important to you and your family to have great comfort with technology, maybe spending that much time with screened media makes sense. But if you’re the kind of person who wants to do different things, maybe play a sport, maybe stay outside in your garden, or give back to your community through service, or maybe work on art with your hands, it’d be wise to think about balancing those kinds of things with your time in front of screened media.”