BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Anyone with a smartphone can rattle off anecdotes about the ups and downs of using texts and social media to keep in touch with family, friends and even old classmates or co-workers.
But 120 juniors at Niskayuna High School spent several weeks in their honors English classes going beyond the personal stories to dig up data that would support their opinions on either the divisive or connective nature of technology.
“They spent several weeks in the library databases,” teacher Amber DeSimony said of her students’ work on the project.
The morning of April 16, the students gathered in groups throughout the Niskayuna library and media center to defend their positions.
Junior Jameson Wells argued for the positive power of technology.
“I strongly believe technology is helpful,” said Wells, whose voice was heard often — and loudly — throughout his team’s debate.
“I text people a lot. I use Twitter a lot,” Wells said. He argued that his busy schedule wouldn’t allow him to keep up some of his relationships as well as he does if he couldn’t text or tweet while his parents drive him to and from school or practices.
“I don’t have time to get together with people on weekdays,” he said.
His research supported his position. Wells said one study that made a strong impression on him demonstrated that participants who spent a lot of time emailing or chatting online had more friends than people who did not do those things. He said the study also found that people tend to give up sleep and free time for technology, rather than social time.
Still, Wells said he understands where his classmates on the opposing side are coming from.
“It’s very personal,” he said.
Junior Sydney Lemelin is one peer on the opposing side.
“I think it made me more conscious of when I’m isolating myself through technology,” Lemelin said of the project.
Her debate position was that technology is a force for loneliness and separation between people, which she said lines up with her personal belief. However, as soon as the debate ended and the bell rang for class to end, she took out her iPhone and began looking at pictures with a friend.
The reality seemed to be more nuanced than the debate for Lemelin, who said she thought both sides made convincing arguments.
No matter which side of the debate they come down on, a large majority of teens consider technological communication a fact of life. According to a Pew study released earlier this month, 88 percent of teens have cellphones or smartphones. Of those, nine of 10 regularly exchange text messages.
A typical teen, the median in Pew’s research, may send 30 texts per day, though older teens ages 15-17 and girl users routinely send more.
The debate, which got emotional at times, made the teachers think, too. DeSimony said she worries about the future of her 4-year-old daughter and how technology might affect it.
“They’re using computers at her day care,” DeSimony said. Her little one also plays with an iPad at school and at home.
Personally, DeSimony said she comes down on the side of caution toward technological devices in everyday life.
“I use my phone a lot,” she admitted, usually for Facebook, apps or books.
“But I still find that it is isolating,” she said.