Texting and Twitter: The Dark Side

Here's something I don't read or hear discussed much:

There is fundamental difference between how a 30, 40, 50, 60 year-old professional and a tween or teen might choose to use social networking tools. Same is true for any of the media sharing sites we have at our disposal. A professional person (a postgraduate with a job and real life responsibilities) has a completely different raison d'etre than, well, a child. But both are equally vulnerable to the dark side of tech tools like Twitter and Texting.


I bought heavily into the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant argument early on but something isn't feeling right anymore as I see so many (digital) presentations by these so-called natives about how out of touch (we?) immigrants are. Many of these presentations are clearly scripted by adults (are they, then, "neo-natives"?) but they have the students deliver the message. To be clear before I continue: my raison d'etre is to promote what's best about 21st century learning/tools. This should be evident by reading my blog posts and bio. The issue, though, is that too many of us are assuming that since kids use cell phones, other handheld devices and computers regularly (not all do) that they are using these tools in productive useful ways and to learn. They may look sophisticated and "involved" but my own observations and conversations with students confirms to me that there's an awful lot of trivia being exchanged and so much healthy, youthful energy is being wasted.

To wit: A middle school girl was complaining recently about being tired. "Why?", I asked. She responded that "this one" referring to the boy next to her "texted me at 9:30 and I was already asleep". I said, "Was it important? What did he say?". The boy offered that he just wanted to 'bother' her so I asked the girl, "Why don't you turn your phone off when you go to bed?" Response: "I don't know. I don't want to miss something. I keep it on all night"

As usual, then I began thinking. I am concerned. I am concerned because this is an independent, strong, smart and talented young lady. She's the kind of girl who teaches herself to play and sing songs by Colbie Caillat and Sara Bareilles and who plays goalie for an All- Star soccer team. Yet....yet she feels she has to answer a text message by a boy who woke her up just to annoy her. We're not talking about friends here. We're talking about a boy she doesn't really associate with or like. I think that if this happens to strong, talented, independent girls how about those with weaker self-esteems? Are they waiting for every text with bated breath as some sort of personal 'validation' even if it comes from people they don't like or know well. And what does it say about the boy and his apparent lack of boundaries? I'm concerned. I have read about the rising epidemic of teens losing sleep because they sleep with cell phones under their pillows. I now have evidence that this is real and that sleep is being lost for no good reason at all for some young people. That's a pitfall of texting for teens. Speaking as an advocate of technology in all forms, I see no reason that anyone under the age of 18 needs a cell phone, or at least a plan that involves texting. No reason at all. Perhaps that seems like a contradiction but I believe in limits.


If you have a Twitter account, you know that you can follow people who may have some valuable insight into things you are interested in. For me, I follow people who "tweet" interesting messages about education, education technology, internet learning tools, arts and music education. I use twitter more like an action research project where my tweets, in time, become chronological data points that can help map my learning and understanding from day to day. I read articles that others suggest reading. It's highly educational for me. It is a form of professional development.

However, I do witness the potential pitfalls of twitter everyday. Here are two things I have witnessed that concern me:

  • Some people I used to follow were always online. Seriously. Always. One person I used to follow made 2-3 tweets EVERY HOUR in a 24 hour period. Huh? Really? Is this necessary? Why? He had many followers and tended to send direct messages to me. Not creepy messages. Just chummy, "thanks" kind of messages. I don't know this person in real life but I sensed he felt validated by the "connection" to strangers. Is he the grown up version of teens with low self esteem? Is the tweeting a potential addiction? Does he need help? He definitely needs to sleep. So do others who incessantly use the service. It's a pitfall.
  • The constant river of information that is Twitter in itself concerns me. It sets up a false sense that one is "missing" something. Go 8 hours without checking your twitter account and, wow, there's some catching up to do! Any sane person, though, realizes, it's impossible to catch it all, to read it all, to synthesize it ALL.
In the end a good life requires balance. Now that we're wired, connected and connected wirelessly all the time, we need to fight for this balance, lest we begin to lose sight of the big picture. It's really what we need to teach our children now: Tech Tools can be used in positive ways to learn, create and express yourself AND Tech Tools can be used in negative ways that waste time, cause sleep deprivation and can potentially damage your health, sense of well being and, consequently, your future success. Let's teach them to unplug and power down once the work is done.
Let's model it, too. It's almost summer. Log off. Get some sleep.

Views: 13

Tags: balance, education, life, teens, texting, twitter


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Comment by Laura Gibbs on June 25, 2009 at 8:10pm
I'll go ahead and leave it again, because it was in response to your second comment, and it was an apology - I had no idea that you thought the student in question was being stalked! From the way you described it, I thought they were friends. So, my apologies for having ignored something that was more serious than I had realized.

Stalking is serious business; I got harassing phone calls for a while in college, and went to a really helpful workshop held by the campus police where I went to school - they explained that it is important to not respond in any way. I had been picking up the phone and then hanging up, but even that is a response, and can inspire the harasser to continue. So, I didn't answer my phone for a while, which was kind of an inconvenience, but the calls stopped. It was a good lesson to learn - I'm a defiant kind of person, so learning NOT to respond in any way was a challenge for me, going against my natural impulse to tell the person to stop. It's a lesson I've shared with students in various situations over the years since then.

So, my apologies: I had no idea you were describing a situation that qualified as stalking!
Comment by Andrew on June 25, 2009 at 7:16pm
I don't moderate comments...don't know what happened. I agree with you...TV=waste of mind; Mind needs a break, etc...valuable insights. Thank you.
Comment by Laura Gibbs on June 25, 2009 at 3:40pm
Hmmm, that comments went through. I guess the one I left before got lost in the ether, alas. Maybe you will see it pop up somewhere for your review and approval; that was the message I got when leaving it. :-)
Comment by Laura Gibbs on June 25, 2009 at 3:39pm
Yes, Andrew, I was being quite serious about the Zen. And about the value of sleep, too!

I tried to leave a comment earlier but I don't know if it went through or not. I got a message that you were not allowing comments like before. Anyway, I hope it went through; I've never moderated comments at a Ning so I don't know how that works. :-)
Comment by Or-Tal Kiriati on June 25, 2009 at 3:38pm
what a great post! I just saw it now. I'll have to get back to it tomorrow morning. Excellent writing. Thanks!
Comment by Andrew on June 25, 2009 at 3:09pm
PS: Giving the brain a rest or at least allowing it to shift in focus is a definite implication to powering down. Can't do that with all the reading, writing, analyzing and synthesizing when we are connected. Not going to get all Zen here, but there IS something to be gained by periods of 'non-thought'.
Comment by Andrew on June 25, 2009 at 2:33pm
There's a significant difference between adults/college-age "kids" and middle/high-schoolers. I didn't realize there was a view to be contrary about, honestly. I am truly concerned for the young people I teach. Balance in all aspects of life/choices/activity seems to me the healthiest and wisest path and one that the adolescents that I teach need to learn, practice and cultivate. I certainly didn't mean to imply that we should turn off and be miserably disconnected on some semi-permanent basis.

There's also a difference between choosing to be sleep deprived and having sleep be interrupted for no good reason by a "stalker". This concerns me especially with regard to young girls being 'harassed' via text messaging.

As a frame of reference I teach 12-14 year olds.

Nathan, you wrote, "I think it's what you do with the connection that matters."

Totally agree. That's part of what I was trying to say.

You also wrote:
"I keep hearing about how there's a substitution effect going on with technology that's upsetting the "balance" in somebody's life. That argument doesn't fly for me any more than the ageist one does."

The caveat that I put at the top of the post was supposed to dispel this notion--it's not what I'm arguing. That argument doesn't fly for me either..(To be clear before I continue: my raison d'etre is to promote what's best about 21st century learning/tools. This should be evident by reading my blog posts and bio.)

I earn a living using, and teaching with technology. I think much of it helps us do things better and more efficiently. But since I don't need to be in a classroom for the next 61 days, I DO look forward to unplugging and spending some time in the woods.

I certainly will NOT be watching TV. Laura--I totally agree with you on that one.
Cheers to you both!
Comment by Laura Gibbs on June 25, 2009 at 12:28pm
Nathan, this analogy of shutting off your brain in order to think better really struck me - on the one hand, of course it is funny... but it has a serious side, too - there are all kinds of meditation practices that aspire to exactly that, shutting down the brain in order to think better, and that would be something I would really consider going offline for: not just to shut down my computer but to shut down my brain (I do sleep a lot, which is perhaps similar, too - they say it is really our brains that need all that sleep time, not our bodies exactly).

But if the only reason I am going to go offline is so that I can use my time to watch television or go shopping or gossip with people about other people (an enormous part of what human conversation has consisted off since the dawn of time), uh, I'll pass.

One wonderful thing I've learned about in the past few months - since AT LAST I have really found some kindred souls in the world of Latin learning - is that the ways people use technology and the balance they strike varies so much! For me, blogging is the main tool that I use (and I use it for many different purposes), because of the power of RSS that is naturally part of blogging. Yet, I also have been interacting with some folks, very productive online, who are not really interested in blogging at all, and don't seem really aware of RSS, but who are busy with other tools - community discussion boards, software development - and the greater balance is how we are able to complement each other and benefit from each other's contributions.

Speaking of which, a real focal point that has brought quite a few of the Latin teachers together in a truly collaborative way is Tar Heel Reader, which I learned about here at Fireside. Have you seen this project? Wow! It is a WordPress application designed by Gary Bishop, a computer science professor at UNC Chapel Hill (just down the road from me, oddly enough!), who builds tools for disabled students, but - as so often - those tools turn out to have an incredibly wide range of application, benefiting so many kinds of learners! Here's the site - TarHeelReader.org - and perhaps you may already know of it, since it is a project affiliated with the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at UNC - I'm guessing that might be a group whose work you are already familiar with. Anyway, we've got all kinds of Latin teachers, even some notably un-technological teachers, using Tar Heel Reader to create AND SHARE materials in Latin. So exciting!!!!! :-)
Comment by Nathan Lowell on June 25, 2009 at 12:06pm
I started to answer this last night but wanted to sleep on it before replying.

The ageist argument has never flown with me. That's just so much snake oil on the water. What Prenske and others are on about is the difference between novice and expert use -- and they're mostly way off base on the depth of expertise on their so-called natives. My personal and largely anecdotal observation is that even moderate levels of expertise tend to be over rated when reported by novices. So when novice adults see kids using technology in ways they don't understand, they tend to think it's more than it is.

As for losing sleep, I agree with Laura. It's a rite of passage. I lost sleep listening to a transistor radio on the hard plastic precursor to the earbud and reading trashy novels under the covers with a flashlight. My kids use their cell phones as flashlights for the same purpose. I won't say it didn't harm me, but I really do believe that the harm was outweighed by the good.

I still try to catch my kids and stop them, but it's part of the game. They have to get good enough that I don't catch them. If they do, they can keep reading.

Which brings me to Twitter and being always on. I should start by the superfluous admission that I'm one of the "always on" crowd. Even when I sleep, my computers (usually three of them) continue to collect, collate, and arrange data for my later use.

One of my personal observations about Twitter is that it may be a mistake to consider it an information source -- something that you have to "catch up with" when you've been away for awhile. Other than checking @-replies and DMs, going back to see what conversations happened when I wasn't there isn't something I waste any time on. When I'm there, I pay attention. When I'm not, it slides by. If I need to know something, I ask a new question and hang around to see if it gets answered.

RSS is the information source. I use a feed reader to collect and collate those subjects and voices that I'm most interested in hearing as informational sources. My feeds don't require me to "catch up with" them. They keep the stuff in-queue until I'm ready to deal with it. Even if sometimes, the way I deal with it is to "mark all read."

The idea that being connected more (or less) is inherently important strikes me as the issue and I'm gonna take the opposite side here, Andrew. It's not whether you're connected - or how you're connected - or even when. I think it's what you do with the connection that matters. I keep hearing about how there's a substitution effect going on with technology that's upsetting the "balance" in somebody's life.

That argument doesn't fly for me any more than the ageist one does.

What's balanced for me may not be balanced for you. The idea that there's some ideal balance and by my having my machines working all the time, that balance is being upset ... the idea that my working sometimes for 20 hours at a stretch using multiple machines to accomplish tasks that are important to me is somehow the dark side just doesn't wash.

Part of it -- and I think a big part -- has to do with the notion of expert and novice. For some people, doing what I do with technology and living the life that I do would be anathema. In some part it's because they don't understand how I do what I do. In some part it's that they don't value what it is that I'm doing. But in the last part, not doing this thing -- logging off at some arbitrarily appointed time, limiting my contact with the world to some small slice of the clock each day, refusing to engage in the community in order to restore some nominal notion of "balance" -- that's just not going to happen.

Maybe I'm addicted and that's the reason. Maybe you're right and this is the "dark side" -- but I have to say that if I were to buy into this notion of balance that you're proposing here, I'd feel like I were voluntarily shutting off half my brain in the service of trying to think better.

Interesting ideas here, but I'm not buying the "we need to teach them balance" in this context. I'm not sure we know that a 'correct balance' exists, let alone what it might entail, and in that context, I don't believe we're in any position to teach anybody about balance.
Comment by Laura Gibbs on June 24, 2009 at 4:39pm
Hi Andrew, I really agree with your point about modeling: it seems to me that one of the most important things I can for my students is show them how I have found ways to use technology to broaden my horizons, to further my learning, to improve the quality of my life... I only use technology that I like and find productive: no peer pressure on me, since most of my peers (university professors) are still adopting the ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand approach to technology.

At the same time, I have to say that what I worry about is not the sleeplessness (isn't that a hallmark of youth? I spent most of my high school and college years proudly, yes, stupidly but still proudly, sleep-deprived - that was a badge of honor, sad to say, long before there was Twitter), and not the connectedness (again, that seems to me something kids have always strived for - the goal is the same, but the means have changed - from hanging out at the mall to hanging out online) - but here is the thing that scares me to death: commercial television. I'm someone who simply cannot bear to watch television with commercials. CANNOT BEAR IT. And I do not do it. I have not watched television with commercials for the past 20 years.

When we went to the beach last year with friends, they had one night where they just had to watch TV because there were a bunch of weekly shows that they watch all on that night, and they simply couldn't wait until they got home to watch them on the DVR, plus they were so excited to introduce us to their favorite shows - so we spent several hours in front of the TV. I felt positively ill afterwards... they would have thought it really rude of me to get up and leave (this was supposed to be a lot of fun, we were watching their favorite shows after all), but I found the whole thing nauseating. The shows were not great, but even that was okay with me - it was the commercials that were unbearable... eegad.

So, let people blog, let them tweet, let them do whatever they want online - that all seems far better to me than watching anything on commercial television...


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