Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Youth Workers, Aloneness, and a Grand Experiment. . . .

Last weekend, a perfect storm converged in my life that was quite telling. It all began with an ending. . . . the ending of my slow and deliberate journey through Sherry Turkle's fascinating, timely, and thought-provoking book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle, a professor at MIT, teaches in a discipline that merges together the social sciences and technology. For years she's been studying the social fallout of robotics. I know. . . not something most of us ever dare ponder. For me, I'm just not that smart. What I love about Turkle is that she isn't afraid to ask the difficult questions about the "advances" that we so readily accept without thought or critique. Think of her as a person that observes, translates, and isn't afraid to shout out a much-needed, "Whoa!!! Wait a minute!" That's what Alone Together really is.

I pondered rattling off a series of helpful quotes from Turkle's book, but there are just too many to list here. I'll leave that until another time. This one will suffice for now: "We enjoy continual connection but rarely have each other's full attention." There you have it folks. A clear and concise statement about our hyper-connected world and how we are really living in it. It's a statement about what we've chosen to let it all do to us. . . and we don't even know that we've made the choice. . . or what it's doing to us, for that matter.

That perfect storm continued as I landed in San Diego for the first of the fall's two Youth Specialties National Youthworkers Conventions. Always fun. My two seminars happened to be birthed out of our Digital Kids Initiative here at CPYU. One was titled "Hyper-Connected 24/7: Kids and Social Media." Afterwards, someone made the correct observation that the seminar wasn't only about what this stuff is doing to kids. It was about all of us. The second seminar was a bit more specific in nature: "Growing Up in A Porn is the Norm World."

The questions and discussion during and after the former offering were very interesting. I wasn't at all surprised that youth workers are lamenting the fact that their students can't put down their cell phones. . . for anywhere from 5 minutes to a weekend. They (the kids) moan, scream, cry,  and lament in a display of separation anxiety that is really about separating human and machine. Sure, we are led to believe that the anxiety is rooted in the cut-off from other human beings. But when the request to power-down is made in an effort to ramp-up real-time real-life face-to-face flesh-and-blood connections. . . well, we have to wonder if we haven't socialized ourselves away from the ability to really relate to real people. Turkle calls this "the new state of self: tethered and marked absent." She writes, "a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or a park. . . . or maybe even a youth group meeting, small group or retreat!!!) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal."

Thanks Ken Castor, for this panorama of our Family Room!
Which leads to the third front in last weekend's perfect storm. . . the Youth Specialties "Family Rooms." This was something new - and yes risky - at this year's convention. I had a front row seat from conception to development to implementation of these "Family Rooms" as I was a co-presenter in one of the rooms. It was a grand experiment that we all knew was going to land somewhere on the response spectrum from "total failure" to "a rousing success." In the end, these directed small group experiences between circles of 8 youth workers - many of whom sat together in a circle for the first time as complete strangers - was a great one. At several points I looked around and saw every one of the 40 or so circles in our room sitting on the edge of their seats, eyes and ears locked on the member speaking at that moment. Groups chose to go over time. Groups asked for their photos to be taken together. Groups walked out of the room together and to a shared meal. Groups exchanged names, phone numbers, and email addresses as they promised to take what they started and to continue it. Who knows. . . we might even see a marriage or two come out of it!! It was absolutely amazing.

You know what else it was? It was needed. I walked away reminded that we have all been created by God for relationships. . . real-time real flesh-and-blood face-to-face relationships void of the masks and distance of mediated and curated online selves. These youth workers powered all that other stuff down and focused on each other. . . and they loved it. . . they soaked it up. . . they didn't want it to end.

So, let's get our kids to power-down. Yes, we will get push-back from our kids who fear the unknown. . . even if the unknown and not-yet-fully-experienced is what they ultimately crave. To be honest, there were many youth workers who confessed a hesitancy with the "Family Room" concept. Many acted on that hesitancy and chose not to show up. I think they missed out. Those who did show up would say the same thing. That's why I'm walking away from this last weekend convinced. . . absolutely convinced. . . that if we facilitate opportunities for kids to power-down and then relate, they will fall in love with that which they were created for but may have never yet experienced. Go ahead. . . give it a try.

And for you youth workers planning on showing up in Dallas in a few weeks. . . you've really got something to look forward to!

5 comments:

Brett Starr said...

2 years ago we implemented a rule where students hand in their phones or anything electronic and then get them back at the close of our time. I have had kids cry, scream, lie and hide the phones in clothing where no one could or should get to it. It has worked extremely well and most kids in fun will rat on other kids who have their phones and I will give that kid the job of getting the phone from their friend. Works Great!! It has taken time, but it has allowed for so much more discussion and less frustration. We have 40-50 kids on a regular basis and get about 20 phones turned in. The exception is if a parent calls and gives permission for their kid to have a phone or they are a first time visitor I let them have it that week but inform them that from now on they will hand in their phone. It has been a good change from kids trying to text while reaching down their boot where they have hidden the phone and claim they are scratching their leg. Haha, that really happened.

Jon said...

I've made a "no electronics" policy for all retreats and trips with our youth group. It's a real fight with the youth leading up to the trip and the first few hours or day, but once you get through the struggle the pay-off is immense. The youth connect with one another, the leaders, and God on an entirely different level simply because they are allowed (read: forced) to place their entire attention on where they are at the moment.

Thank you for your thoughts on the subject.

Luke Parrott said...

In my 12 years of working with the youth, I couldn't agree with you more. Students are hungry to connect but unable to unplug. We are seeing students arrive to our camp ready and anxious to pull the plug on their device and just be with each other. They are finding healing in face to face conversations and living life with each other. We believe the #1 issue facing teens today is loneliness. My director, Andy Braner, just released a book this week about this issue titled Alone:Finding Connection in a Lonely World.

This message needs to be advocated continually. We find that students are longing for someone to really know them well. They just need to be pushed into environments that unplug them and allow them to experience genuine community. Keep on writing!

revtimbrown said...

Right on Walt, thank you for your insights on media ecology. I'm going to go talk to my kids for while and get off this iPad.

Walt Mueller said...

"media ecology". . . that's a great term revtimbrown. . . what we add to the environment effects everything in the evironment, including ourselves and our students.

I'm wondering. . . do youth workers see this as an important issue to understand and address?