A prospective student teacher recently told me that she spends more than six hours a day on TikTok. In my experience with my college students, that's not untypical. His addiction isn't his fault, but now it's his responsibility and, more controversially, ours. I don't want to imagine what her students will be like when she's a mid-career teacher like me.
"I just can't look away," she told me sheepishly.
Having taught for 25 years and attended many 12-step meetings because of my own internet addiction, I'm an English teacher who doesn't believe in the latest TikTok effort to limit daily screen time to an hour by default. For users under the age of 18 to protect the brains of our youth. It's too little and too late.
In my environmental literature classes, I've seen firsthand the long-term effects of digital cocaine like TikTok on my college students. On a probably doomed quest to make them more present: to value the written word and nature, I sometimes use my wetsuit and scuba mask to get their attention when we talk about coral reefs and Ralph Waldo Emerson. . .
This is not waking indoctrination. My colleagues and I strive to be at the forefront of teachinga mental crisis of the students.
Too many of the college students who take the course I currently teach, Environmental Literature in Wonders and Crisis, cannot read. They're educated, of course, but they can't sit long enough to read a chapter of Henry David Thoreau's Walden or an essay about an Australian ecofeminist who was nearly mauled by a crocodile. Some have confided that they have never read a book cover to cover in their lives. Few would choose this course voluntarily, but they require three English credits to graduate.
Basically, this is an attention crisis. Distraction and being overwhelmed are its symptoms. In an informal, anonymous class poll, only 13 percent of my nearly 300 students this semester said they didn't experience intense anxiety on a regular basis -- that surprised me. A third reported that his fear prevented her from reading given texts. Half said they have trouble paying attention when reading, even when their phones are off. Reading and time out in nature, inherently powerful anti-anxiety drugs, just can't compete with TikTok. And neither a quiet face-to-face conversation with sustained eye contact, nor a 75-minute college lecture.
My students are overexcited, depressed, and exhausted from their primary use of TikTok and Instagram. Although more studies are needed, research has shown that astrong correlationbetween the use of social networks and psychological problems. So I shouldn't be offended if they ask me to create exam study guides for them.
Their brains, rewired by the likes of TikTok, can't keep up with all that stuff. Since high school, TikTok's hyper-personalized algorithms have been bombarding them with 10-second videos customized to maximize the dopamine hit and company profits. You are hooked, likerecent research in neurosciencesuggests that the parts of the brain involved in addiction light up when they see an eight-foot-tall chocolate giraffe or a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with walnuts. Like many of us, they deal with their fear in ways that end up reinforcing it.
Each semester, I find myself lowering class expectations for fear of getting too many Fs for final grades. I also fear that literature, a repository of our most treasured values, a way to encourage empathy and imagination and slow down, is going the way of the cassette and the dodo bird. With environmental literature, I invite my students to be more present and appreciate natural beauty and the beauty of stories and words. With catastrophic climate change looming, we have no time to lose: we must now appreciate the beauty of nature. Yet very few of my students take the time to truly appreciate the national forest and national park where our campus is located.
Unlike me, my students are digital natives born in the post 9/11 years. As children, many of them were never allowed to run around and play freely. When they were in kindergarten, the Oxford Junior Dictionary replaced words like acorn, moss and fern with a database, MP3 player and broadband. Of course they are happy about that. You are young on a planet whose long-term habitability is uncertain. Too often they're stuck indoors alone, pecking at their screens and not getting any sleep. Longing for looks at her Instagram stories as if her survival depended on it. If they haven't attempted suicide, they know friends who have attempted suicide.
Have you ever sat under a tree and been left with a challenging book of paper pages? Have you been staring at the clouds without your phones for a while and seeing acorns, moss and ferns in all the swelling? Or is nature too boring, best appreciated as a selfie backdrop?
Are you amazed?
These are not hysterical questions.
I want you to feel the wonder I felt at summer camp when 14 of us held hands around a giant oak tree. I immediately felt calmer in his shadow. I also want you to love poetry, look at William Wordsworth's Daffodils and Sit on the Grass by Walt Whitman.
I, too, have felt my attention and imagination, my true humanity, receding. What would it take to be happier in this numb veil of a cyborg life in an overheated world? It may be necessary to slow down and look at something real. It could mean getting out there and cultivating gratitude and determination even when we don't feel like it. Find a personal support community wherever you are.
I still find some hope for the future when teaching English learners and creative writing students who seem to use social media less than their peers.
AA few semesters ago, at the beginning of my ecological writing workshop, The Environmental Imagination, my 15 students and I were discussing a chapter from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss, "Learning to See," a title that could be our three-word curriculum. . Nature itself, not so much my words, did much of the teaching in this class. I asked them to look at the maple tree next to us and tell us what they saw.
"Sharp leaves," said one, still shy.
"Coarse whitish bark," said another quietly.
I asked her to look again as if this maple was the last tree on earth. "What do you see," I asked, "that no one else sees?"
"That leaf on the edge of that branch," Jacob* said, pointing to it and squinting, "is lighter than the others and has a ragged edge." The next thing I knew he was standing under the maple and slowly feeling the bark with his hands as if it were ancient pottery, and then Pierre took his place. It doesn't smell much, they said. After a few giggles and a few awkward silences, Bonnie stood and stuck out her tongue to taste the crust.
During a break in our discussion, I looked at my students. Most had read with varying degrees of understanding; They didn't vape in class, they wanted to be here. I saw the talented and human Chloe writing about body dysmorphia and a snail. Touching concerned Dan who will see wet-written cultural chaos in the turbulent stream in his first essay. The calm and wild Carmen who, after contemplating a grouse mushroom on a path, will write an elegy to her Bolivian grandmother, who fed her chicken salteñas with raisins and olives.
Students like her give me hope. I suffer for her too.
This semester we have not created a left-wing re-education camp. Instead, we create miniatures the kind of respectful, fair, evidence-based, and ecologically minded society that many of us want to live in. As I taught this extraordinary class, I was reminded that not every young person needs to be taught to care about books or the country. Nor did I have to explain to them that this life of fireflies and twisted cedars is worth staying alive. "It's not enough to name the problem," I told them as they worked on their green manifestos toward the end of the semester. "What do we do about it?" This applies to the ecological crisis as well as to our care crisis.
What is at stake here is our collective brain. The basic sanity that allows society to move on. Fundamentally, if we want to tackle the climate crisis, we need to be creative and unperturbed, full of determination, courage and cooperation. The disasters of this century will require consideration, social cohesion and focus, even if we don't have to give. If we do nothing about this attention crisis in our youth and in almost all of us, the climate crisis will not be serious enough to matter.
*Student names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.