Education Trends

The Digital Lives of Teens: Mobile is Now

June 11, 2013
Photo credit: frerieke via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Matt Galligan, co-founder of SimpleGeo, says, "The future of mobile is the future of everything." Galligan sees a future where mobile will pervade every facet of life, from communication to wallets to car keys.

The PEW Internet and American Life Project reports in its Teens and Tech section that "78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half (47%) of them own smartphones." There are now over six million mobile subscribers, write Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, authors of The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.

For teens, the phone is the social device. One teen shared, "I use my phone for all of my social networking. I don't use a computer or an iPad for that."

Since the go-to spot for mobile social is the phone, not the tablet, this might be encouraging news for schools incorporating tablets into the learning environment.

Cooler Than a Tablet

Schools exploring and experimenting with tablet implementation are stepping into this mobile future, entering uncharted territory and embracing a learning environment that is nimble, fast, unpredictable and vast. There is a lot of ambiguity at play.

As schools continue to develop strategies for the best ways of utilizing tablets to enhance learning, understanding the role and place of the phone in the lives of students can provide insight into how to construct "the network" of tablets.

Phones are ubiquitous, small, easy to carry and easy to hide. And the timing of when teens get a phone is instructive. The tipping point is often in between sixth and seventh grades. In Teens and Mobile Phones, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that the average age when "a typical American" gets a mobile phone is between 12 and 13.

By the beginning of seventh grade, the common refrain among teens to their parents is, "All my friends have a phone, why can't I have one?" This is a tough spot for parents.

Up until seventh grade or when a teen first gets a phone, computers and tablets serve as the gateway to gaming and social networking for many kids. For schools, this has significant implications, as fifth and sixth graders using tablets will designate the tablet as their mobile social device to be used, not as a tool for learning, but instead as the window into the sophisticated and distracting world of social gaming and networking. These younger students might utilize iMessage or Gmail and its many permutations in the form of Google+ or Google Hangout.

The Lure of Connectivity

What these students are encountering for the first time is "digital empowerment." Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen introduce this concept in the early pages of The New Digital Age:

Digital empowerment will be, for some, the first experience of empowerment in their lives, enabling them to be heard, counted and taken seriously.

The default for kids is to share. It might be a silly video, a game, a photo or a scene from a party. There is a feverish intensity to sharing and fear that not sharing will lead to fomo, the fear of missing out.

And for teachers working with fifth and sixth graders, the task of holding and maintaining student attention is that much harder. These 10- and 11-year-olds are experiencing the dopamine rush of the tablet gateway, and to pull them out or away from the temptation to open a new app presents challenges.

Schmidt and Cohen capture the central challenge for institutions attempting to manage "connectivity":

As global connectivity continues its unprecedented advance, many old institutions and hierarchies will have to adapt or risk becoming obsolete, irrelevant to modern society.

Stay Relevant

For educators, the conversation is no longer "if" but "how." And it is comforting to know that the behavior and engagement schools are seeing cuts across the entire globe and is not exclusive to teens.

Tweens scurry about like mice with mobile devices, and as one parent noted in a recent New York Times article on cyberparenting: "What I've found out is, they know how to shut you out." In the same article, another parent shares, "Sometimes I think we know less."

Given that, as Schmidt and Cohen write, "The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history," it is not surprising that parents and educators are overwhelmed with "screenagers" who have been unleashed into this mobile "anarchy."

In his recent cover story for Time Magazine, Joel Stein taps into the phenomenon of empowerment that the information revolution has engendered:

The information revolution has further empowered individuals by handing them the technology to compete against huge organizations: hackers vs. corporations, bloggers vs. newspapers, terrorists vs. nation-states, YouTube directors vs. studios, app-makers vs. entire industries.

Stein is of course writing about millenials, but he could well be describing what is happening in schools and homes with screenagers: the "competition" between kids and parents or kids and educators.

Stein goes on to write: "Millenials don't need us. That's why we're scared of them."

Screenagers don't need parents and educators to teach them how to use digital stuff -- phones, tablets, apps. In fact, screenagers are independent, especially if they have access to an iTunes account. They're so independent that the traditional model of schooling appears to go out the window when tablets and technology enter the daily life of a school.

Schmidt and Cohen see the need for all institutions -- schools included -- to adapt or fail to be relevant.

Mobile is now.

Note: For more blogs in this series, continue with The Digital Lives of Teens: What Time Is It? Now!.