Susan Reynolds: How Students Are Creating Their Own Solutions for Tech-Life Balance
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Meet Susan Reynolds.
Susan Reynolds has over 20 years of experience in digital wellbeing, mindfulness and youth leadership. Susan started her career as a teacher and has since held roles as a curriculum developer, Director of Academic Technology, social entrepreneur, and yoga instructor – just to name a few.
In 2019 she co-founded LookUp.live, a fast-growing nonprofit that funds youth-led innovations aimed at solving some of today’s toughest problems: burnout, depression, loneliness, social injustice, lack of genuine connection, and insomnia among many other problems—all escalated by our new world of technology and 24/7 connectivity. LookUp.live also partners with academic institutions across the US to promote and amplify youth-based solutions for tech-life balance through competitions, campaigns, and workshops.
As this school year begins and many students switch to different forms of distance learning, finding solutions to our digital problems is more important than ever. So this week we decided to reach out to Susan to learn a little more about the challenges facing today’s students and the tools and strategies they are using to improve their relationship with tech.
What originally inspired you to work with young people and technology?
I began my middle school teaching career in 1986 when technology was in the distant future. In 1997, I was asked to create a “Tech Plan” for my school because the newly hired Director of Technology was too busy wiring the school, literally crawling in the attic and dropping cables into classrooms. Don Tapscott’s book “Growing Up Digital” was the first book I read where he predicted internet addiction even then. Tapscott introduced me to the promise and peril of technology for youth.
Armed with knowledge and a purpose, I became the Academic Director of Technology at the Fenn School. In that role, I introduced teachers and students to teaching with technology, which sparked conversations and concerns about the double-edged sword of online life. My students spent more time on AOL Instant Messenger than homework, and I couldn’t blame them—I found the internet quite addictive as well. My use of technology evolved alongside my students’, but it wasn’t until 2014 when I read about the escalating mental health crisis among youth and college students that I delved more deeply into the correlation between this crisis and students’ digital lives.
After running a pilot at Dartmouth College, I realized adult solutions might be good for some, but many other students had their own ideas about how to manage their technology use — including a phone-free fraternity party.
When 17-year-old Juliet Gildehaus spoke about the difficulty of balancing her social media use when her friends were not, she created the LookUp Challenge. The challenge was a week-long commitment to take a break from social media, one’s phone, and or excessive video gaming in a manner that worked for them. The power of a student led program that involved choice, youth agency, and community participation became the precursor for LookUp.live where we empower youth through their own solutions and ideas.
We host the LookUp StartUp Competition on college campuses, as well as our own virtual competition, and bring the LookUp Challenge to middle schools and high schools where student leaders iterate it in the way that works for their school community.
Why is tech-life balance so important for this age group in particular?
Gen Z was the first generation to grow up alongside today’s advanced technology and digital world. With the release of smartphones in 2006 and the escalation of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat by 2010, teens’ social lives have begun to take place more and more online. Adolescence is a time when peer relationships become more important and experiences are more rewarding when shared, so if a teen’s peers are on social media, that’s where that teen wants to be too. A generalized statement from correlative research shows that students who spent more time on tech and less time engaged in offline activities were more likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely than their peers who spent more time engaging in offline activities.
Digital addiction is an emerging global epidemic, which some link to the escalating mental health crisis among youth 10-24 including anxiety, depression, loneliness, distorted reality and social imbalance. College students in one study reported experiencing depression (40%), hopelessness (51%) and overwhelming anxiety (60%) in the last 12 months. The Government of South Korea has declared internet use a public health crisis, and “gaming addiction” is now a classified disease by the World Health Organization.
Youth’s relationship with technology is complicated. Young people positively use technology for civic engagement, entertainment, self-expression, creativity, learning, and many other activities. Yet, unfettered access also presents challenges:
- Youth largely feel no expectation of privacy online
- 50% say they feel addicted to their phones
- 68% believe social media negatively impacts their peers
- 72% believe they are manipulated by tech companies
- 56% do not feel confident identifying truthful information
- And while 43% have witnessed incivility/conflict online, 39% believe it’s acceptable, while 32% elect to withdraw from the conversation.
Though there are many factors, correlative data between excessive use of digital devices and social media in multiple studies (NIH) signifies the call to address youth digital addiction. Technology is here to stay, in many positive ways, but overuse can diminish them. Tech-life balance is a way to address this complicated issue. Today, nearly 100% of all solutions are designed and driven by adults with little, if any, youth engagement. This is why we founded LookUp.live. We believe empowering youth to design the solutions to have agency over their relationship with technology is the best way to make a positive social impact.
What would you say are the main problems caused by technology the next generation is facing? In what ways has the pandemic heightened or lessened these issues?
This is an important conversation we’ve had with LookUp Social Innovators, Teen Council and Interns. Here’s what some of them had to say:
For many young people today, technology is all they’ve ever known. Many people view technology as a way of making us more efficient and productive, but there are some serious downsides to technology reliance and overuse, especially for young people today who haven’t known a world without it. In my own personal experience, I’ve found that the more I’m immersed in technology, the harder it is to focus. It’s more difficult to read and write without distraction. Plus, at any given moment, a notification could steal my attention away from the task at hand. The other key problem I’ve found is that my generation struggles with real-life interaction more than other generations do. For instance, many of my friends refuse to take phone calls because they don’t like the vulnerability of it—texting feels safer and less exposed. If texting is our preferred method of communication, it makes sense that we would be anxious in real-life social situations where body language, eye contact, tone, and speed of speech all matter—not to mention we can’t delete what we say in real life after we’ve said it! Related to this, my generation is undergoing a loneliness crisis: while it may seem that 24/7 connectivity would foster connection, it actually leaves us feeling like we’re not enough due to competition culture and inaccurate depictions of lives on social media. Naturally, the pandemic has heightened all three of these issues: with our lives being forced to move online now more than ever before, it’s been more and more difficult to avoid these tech-related issues. ― Katie Santamaria, Columbia University ‘21
There exists a link between heavy social media usage and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, self-harm, and loneliness. These negative feelings are created because social media breeds a toxic environment in which people constantly compare their lives with the lives of others. This can especially affect young people, who not only use social media more but are more susceptible to desiring superficial qualities and things they do not have. However, the irony of social media is that people are not comparing themselves to another person, they are comparing themselves to an image painted by the other person, and all too often the picture is not an accurate representation of that person’s life. The lack of transparency between real life and the life depicted on social media often distorts reality for many adolescents and young adults and can lead to issues with self-confidence and image. - Nathan Camilo, Dartmouth College ‘21
Have any of the young people you work with changed their ideas around social media and technology in general since the pandemic began?
Many members of our high school Teen council and college social innovators and interns confess to spending more time on social media than they’d like during the pandemic, yet they find it difficult to stop. Knowing that their peers are also online, and the inability to meet up with friends face to face presents a conundrum. Without a boundary between school and home, the ability to distract oneself with social media, YouTube, or Netflix shows is all the more prevalent. One student chose to delete Instagram and limit her “Finsta” or Finstagram to only 40 people, allowing her to connect more authentically with a smaller group.
Students also began talking about the pros and cons of video conferencing, choosing synchronous learning over asynchronous learning in the same time slot as teachers and classmates, as long as there were times for breaks. Zoom Fatigue, or the feeling of tiredness, anxiousness or worry with yet another video call. The cognitive overload from time delays, viewing oneself, and staring into the screen without facial cues or automatic body language contributed.
Students talked specifically about the new uses of social media and activism during news coverage of George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter. The use of the statement “Read the Room” increased, and students who posted personal or curated photos were “Called Out” on their lack of attention to racial justice. One student reflected:
“In early June social media shifted to a platform for advocating social change and awareness. However, the “all-or-nothing” attitude at the time—that the only acceptable posting was related to social issues, justice etc—made it inevitable that an era of “nothing” followed the era of “all”. I think that the COVID world is making the difference between sustainable and unsustainable changes more apparent, and hopefully we will adjust our attitudes to sustain personal profiles alongside advocating for causes bigger than ourselves in the near future.” ―Annie Reynolds, Menlo School ‘22, CA
What do you think will be the biggest challenges for high school students heading into this very unconventional Fall semester?
This question was answered differently depending on the age of the students. LookUp’s Teen Leadership Council is made up of middle and high school students from a variety of public and private schools. Their greatest challenges were specific to their age and whether their schools were going back in person, hybrid or all distance learning.
Those attending boarding school mentioned the challenge of quarantining for two weeks before attending and the uncertainty of wondering if in person learning would shut down again to be sent home again.
The return to distance learning, even if only half the time, was disappointing to students because schooling/studying alone in your room became monotonous, lonely and less motivating.
The seniors on the Teen Council are applying to college, and the uncertainty of when the pandemic will end is one major challenge. Not being able to visit the campuses, nor knowing if they should take the entrance exams is another.
As a senior, one of the most challenging things is the uncertainty of AP and SAT/ACT tests, because these are very stressful and have been greatly impacted. This is a time for us when there is supposed to be a lot going on related to the college process, such as touring schools, and we aren't sure how our college application process might be affected by this strange time. - Haydn Wolfers, Senior, Piedmont High School, CA
As an aside, please fill out the Teen Leadership Council survey if you would like to join them, or if you know of a teen who wants to shift the norms around digital overload for more tech-life balance!
What advice would you give to a young person who is just about to start college or enter the workforce in these uncertain times?
Some comments from college students, both in college and recently graduated can be summed up in this manner. The world has changed since the onslaught of Covid-19, but it will not always be as it is today. As much as possible, embrace the ways you can study or work remotely, whether it be in your “comfy” clothes, outside in the fresh air, or in a less structured environment. While it’s going to be hard to start college either virtually or in a socially distanced environment, knowing that you and your peers are all in it together could help. Uncertainty is hard, but it will also prepare you for more changes that come up in your lifespan.
Although we hear the term “unprecedented” thrown around a lot in the news, the truth is that as you move into this next chapter of your life, every semester, every 4:30pm email from your boss, and every day hanging out with friends (virtually or in person) will be scary, exciting, and yes, unprecedented. So I would encourage you to savor these feelings of uncertainty (the sister of excitement) and be mindful of the fact that whether you spend the next few months on Zoom, in the office, or on the quad they will surely be some of the best months of your life. ―Kojo Edzie, Dartmouth College ‘20, NH
Many of the common anxieties of going away to college will be amplified due to the pandemic. How can people experiencing these feelings deal with them in such a way that it doesn’t affect their ability to study or enjoy a social life?
Here’s how a few students recently answered this question:
It will be harder to have a social life. If they are on campus, many students may need to live in a single without access to a common space or each others’ dorm rooms. I won’t be going to MIT in the fall because they are only bringing seniors on campus. I plan to connect with other MIT first years in the Bay Area. I also hope to rent a house with others in the Bay Area, so we experience our online classes and extracurricular activities together. ―Sophie Reynolds, MIT ‘24, Cambridge, MA
Students need to find a sense of belonging, likely through a structured group they can take part in. A great way to do this would be to join a club. As was mentioned in the meeting, it's probably going to be really hard to make friends in classes now because they can't really interact in that space in the same way, but I know clubs and organizations are still trying their best to adapt virtually and foster a sense of community online. I think clubs in general are the easiest way to find a group and that's still a viable option even in the pandemic. ―Jacob Posten, University of Texas Austen ‘21
Do you think there will be any positive changes to our education systems that come out of this period?
In this unprecedented time, the quick turn around to distance learning raised significant challenges for schools including the enormity of inequity for certain school districts. Large numbers of students did not have adequate technological devices nor internet capacity to participate equitably as some classmates.
There appears to be a much higher awareness of the inequities in education, and some have classified it as another type of institutional racism. Commons Sense Media’s recent report: 2020 Tweens, Teens, Tech, And Mental Health: Coming Of Age in an Increasingly Digital, Uncertain and Unequal world, examines these inequities more closely as well as outlines action steps to improve.
It is a great opportunity to reimagine education that reflects the ubiquitous nature of our digital world, and how to utilize technology while also remaining human during the Pandemic and beyond. Some educators warn that human interaction and face to face support should not be sacrificed for more technology. I agree with this as part of LookUp’s mission is to embrace the “Humanness of Things” (a play on words counter to the Internet of Things)
How have the teens you work with overcome the disappointment of missing events like proms and graduation ceremonies? Did they come up with any innovative ways to celebrate these special moments?
While many seniors expressed great sadness and disappointment that their senior spring disappeared in the way that they always imagined it, here is how a few students found ways to “make the best of it.”
“People wore their new dresses because they already had them and took pictures with their dads for Prom.”
“We had a Drive-In Graduation with no outside speaker, so more personal with a teacher who knew the class. It was fun to sit on top of the car with my family inside.”
“Two seniors in college had a graduation parade in their neighborhood where families sat on their lawns in lawn chairs with balloons and banners, cheering and applauding the graduates.”
“One family hosted a graduation party for their son’s closest friends. Tables for each family were set up on the lawn – 6 feet apart – with a distanced celebration.”
How have the young people you work with maintained or made new friendships while in social isolation?
This is where the power of social media was put to good use. In conversations with several high school and college students, we came up with some key factors.
- Do something with your friends while on Zoom calls including: Play Pictionary, create PowerPoints about some fun facts about yourself and share, host Hulu and Netflix Parties, and participate in Scavenger Hunts that take you offline in your home, but bring you back together online.
- Even though video addiction can be a serious problem, balanced video game playing allowed many to stay connected over the phone while they played or on the platform Discord.
- The power of communication became very important to maintaining relationships because different people had different needs for friendship. If one person wanted to connect more than another, it could create tension and discomfort. Several students talked about learning to communicate these needs with their friends.
- One thing some really missed was the easy, spontaneous “hang out” times, so some started turning on their Zoom or FaceTime and “did their own thing” while they were connected via a digital device.
In order to maintain relationships throughout quarantine my friends and I would schedule weekly zoom calls that would consist of different games, talking to one another about how we were feeling emotionally/ mentally and each week someone would have to pick a new topic to make a powerpoint about. For example, one week was all about which breed of dog our friends were most similar to. These powerpoints were always a great way to get in a good laugh and forced us to be creative and unique! - Rebecca Deny, Chapman University ‘21
Could you share some of the LookUp Changemakers’ best tips for focus and studying?
As tempting as it is to study with your phone next to you, the proximity of your phone impacts your cognitive ability, memory retention and fluid intelligence. For maximum brain power, study with your phone in another room. This will reduce the temptation to check your phone, multitask and fall down the rabbit hole of mindless scrolling.
I recommend treating a day of distance learning the same way you'd treat a regular school day. Wake up early, brush your teeth, wash your face, change out of your pajamas, grab a quick breakfast or snack, and settle down at your desk. Take breaks often: soak in some sun, walk around your house, or call a friend. Most importantly, stay on top of your responsibilities and communicate with your peers and teachers regularly to keep in touch with your learning community. You can do this! ―Aayushi Jain, Lynbrook High School ‘21, CA
If possible, do homework with friends. Even when working on different assignments outside and 6+ feet apart, you can emulate the feeling of a productive school environment and enjoy face-to-face social interaction that's hard to come by in a COVID-world. During the uncertainty and stress of junior spring, these "workdates" helped me retain some sanity and sense of normalcy. Structuring your days similarly to a typical school schedule is an effective way to separate time for working and space for fun. Dedicate an hour or so to each class, during which your phone is in another room, all your materials are easily accessible, and you stay on one subject. Building in breaks to clear your mind or get a snack helps to promote motivation and focus. During lunch, try to distance yourself from screens in hopes of preventing screenaches (aka headaches caused by screen-overload). And for gym? Get outside! I believe that fresh air is crucial for conquering digital learning. ―Aliza Kopans, Arlington High School ‘21
How can family members and educators best support young people this Fall semester?
In this unprecedented time of uncertainty and the need for tech to maintain human interactions, tech-life balance is going to be more difficult. What we’ve heard from youth is that they want the research, but they don’t want to be told what to do with their digital lives. They want to be asked. As educators and family members, discussing the role of technology in our own lives is a great place to start. When we share our pain points whether Zoom Fatigue, the addictive lure of following news stories on Twitter, or missing the in person social gatherings, it becomes a community struggle during this Pandemic, rather than an adult telling a young person to “put their phone down.” Then we can ask Gen Z about their own digital lives, pain points and ideas for solutions.
Modeling Tech-Life Balance is always the greatest teacher. If you are an educator with distance learning this Fall, hosting wellness breaks during class supports both you and your students. Acknowledging Zoom Fatigue and scheduling 3 minute breaks that can include, a short meditation, a guided stand and stretch sequence, and a chance to jog in place, cameras on or off.
For educators alternating online class time with offline tasks throughout the block schedules in Tech-Life Balance. Frequent Break Out sessions to discuss material in smaller groups also helps break up the activity so students aren’t staring at the screen for long periods of time.
Digital Detoxes are more difficult during the Pandemic, but short breaks from technology to get outside, go for a walk or bike ride, try a new hobby like gardening or cooking have been top rated suggestions. It also keeps one engaged in the “real” world, socially distanced and with masks.
To learn more about Susan Reynolds, her work, or to learn more about the 2021 Look Up virtual competition open to all university students – you can visit her site at LookUp.live.