Rosenblum: Technology cheats teens of chance to be quietly alone

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2014 - 10:18 PM

A teenager composes a text message on her cell phone in Canton, Mass.

Photo: Jodi Hilton, Associated Press

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Anybody who has shared living quarters with a teenager knows how skilled they are at finding new ways to worry us.

This week’s worry, while not life-threatening, is plenty interesting.

For decades, parents have been counseled to pay close attention to children and teens who spend too much time alone, isolated from friends and activities they once enjoyed. That remains true today.

But, thanks to technology, we’re facing the other side of that coin.

Wired 24/7, tethered to friends via texting, Instagram and FaceTime, a growing number of teenagers don’t know how to be alone, ever, or why they’d want to be.

Anne Gearity has many compelling reasons to introduce our kids to … themselves. A veteran clinical social worker at the University of Minnesota with a mental health practice, Gearity sees healthy alone time as essential to helping teenagers figure out who they are and what they want, separate from the group.

It’s in this space where they can innovate and create. It’s where they build self-confidence.

And how they do at this developmental passage can determine the health or lack of health of adult relationships.

Gearity spoke about this, and other 21st century parenting challenges, last week at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

“What happens in early adolescence is that you come to the reali­zation that, although my parents are there for me, they can’t be with me in a psychological way,” Gearity said in a follow-up interview.

“They say, ‘I have to be my own person.’ But there’s a dilemma of ‘How do I be me?’ Socialized to be in a group, the dilemma is, ‘How do I hold on to myself?’

“High school is a lot of negotiation of that. The tension between the we and the me is really strong.”

Alone time helps kids sort that out, but they have to make time to do that, which many aren’t. Gearity laughs at some of the texts kids share with her:

“Where are you?”

“Down the hall.”

“OK, I’m coming!”

“That feeling of constant connection has become the new norm,” said Gearity, the mother of two grown children. It’s not unusual, she said, for kids to text 500 times a day.

“They have a whole speedy language that facilitates this almost merging of the minds. How can they hear their own thoughts?”

Back in the Dark Ages (pre-cellphones and computers), kids did, at least, have that opportunity in abundance.

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