With each generation the public consciousness conjures up a new fear for our youth: where once it was rock ‘n’ roll, today the concern is that teenagers’ lives are dominated by digital media. The worry is that the digital deluge may affect their capacity to learn, to converse, to spell, and more besides. Have they no time for the leisurely face-to-face conversations of old, for spending time with family, or even for a good night’s sleep uninterrupted by the glowing screen of a smartphone? I spent a year with a class of 13-year-olds to find out.
This year of fieldwork meant spending time with them at school, at home, with friends and online. Rather than concern for their welfare, I found myself encouraged at how well they managed the huge influx of digital devices and content that now fill their lives. Writing up my research findings and thoughts in The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age, I found what teenagers wish for most is control over how they spend their time and with whom — not just to use digital media for its own sake.
To illustrate, here are three moments in a day in the life of today’s digitally equipped teenagers.
Arriving at school in the morning was stressful as the teenagers made the transition from sleepiness and comfort at home to being on full alert and constrained by the stringent rules of school. One teenager, Fesse, was usually late — partly because he played Xbox till late into the night and partly because he relied on his older sister to chivvy him out of the house each morning. Another, Salma, arrived neat and calm, having texted her friends early to synchronize walking to school together, chatting all the way.
For much of the day the class faced the smart whiteboard at the front, through which teachers integrated YouTube clips and other electronic resources into their lessons. It’s clear that teachers are still working out how to do this and what the value might be. We witnessed a fair number of struggles to make the technology work, or sometimes to engage pupils with digital media in the classroom. For instance, the teaching of music technology at school didn’t really build on Fesse or Giselle’s enthusiastic experimentation with music in their leisure time.
More successful was the routine use of SIMS, the school’s information management system, in which students’ attendance or absence, good or bad behavior, grades and progress were recorded by teachers throughout the day.