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Virginia Journal of Education


 FRACTURED ATTENTION

How to help your students break free of screen addiction.

By Maria Fleshood

A couple years ago, as we settled into our annual family beach vacation, I noticed that our granddaughters, then young adolescents, were spending more time on their phones—texting, posting to Instagram, Facetiming and Snapchatting—than they were spending with one another. A few days into the trip, isolation replaced the whispered chatter and bursts of laughter we used to hear throughout the week as they updated each other on their lives. 

Screens and social media had slowly found their way into the intimacy of time and connection our family once shared, making activities we used to cherish, like family game night, an effort. 

My husband and I were not impressed with these virtual strangers joining our family gathering and decided we’d challenge our granddaughters to avoid all their screens for 24 hours. Knowing how much they enjoy extra cash, we offered each of them $10 if they could pull it off. Without hesitation, they agreed. 

They volunteered their screens at 10 p.m., placing them in our room. Around 9:55 p.m. the following evening, they showed up to reclaim them, feeling proud and confident in their success and eagerly awaiting their $10. 

Before handing it over, we asked them what was it like to not have phones, tablets, and TV for 24 hours. Here are a few of their comments:

I actually found myself enjoying the beach more. I liked swimming with everyone and I seemed to be more relaxed and not so worried about everything that was going on with my friend, who always has some drama.

I’ve been feeling left out of conversations and not feeling as close to Shelby and Jane as I usually do when we are together. I don’t go to their school and so I feel out of the conversations when they Snapchat. …It just felt good…like I was part of them again. Can we do this the rest of the week?

I didn’t like it at first. Actually, I went along because you asked us to and I got bored real fast. But, after a few hours, I forgot about stuff going on with my friends and actually had more fun. Sounds weird, but I think I liked it. 

Knowing that screens and teens are a growing concern of mine, our daughter later shared an article she’d read, in which a Washington, D.C. principal announced a summer challenge to rising eighth- and ninth-grade students at their end-of-year assembly. She promised to pay them each $100 out of her own pocket if they could avoid all screens on the 11 Tuesdays during their summer break. No phones, TV, video games, or tablets. Each student had to get a note from two adults vouching for their participation. Of 170 students, 70 agreed and 36 successfully made it through all 11 Tuesdays.

When interviewed, participating students reported reactions similar to our granddaughters. 

I played more games with my family. We hung out more and I found things to do outside. No Tech Tuesdays was rough if I was inside. Inside I hang in my room and stay on my phone.

My brain doesn’t automatically think, “I’m bored. I’ll go play Xbox or get on my phone”…Making myself not use screens on those days made feel like I’m doing different things a lot more. It gave me time to learn how to skateboard. I feel like I’ve been doing more stuff.

Students and the Screen

The power of screens has become more and more obvious. Many students have more than their attention captured by screens—they become addicted to them. 

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State and the author of iGen, has been researching generational differences for over 25 years. In her book, she notes that around 2012, teen behavior and emotional lives took an “abrupt shift,” finding that today’s students: 

Spend more time in isolation. They talk and communicate via screens rather than face-to-face, leaving them more comfortable in their rooms than in cars, at parties, or one-on-one with friends. 

Are shaped more by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media and less by internal thinking, conversations with parents, elders, news, or debates in classrooms.

Wait longer to take on both the responsibility and the pleasures of adulthood. Shifts in the economy and parenting certainly play a role. In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement, not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends and build relationships.

Parents may assume their child is studying, but in a moment of boredom, reaches out to what they have learned will create more pleasure. As one student put it, “You just wait to see who ‘wants you’ and once you are in that circuit of apps you want to stay with them.” Focus is easily lost when a text pops up or a like chimes on one’s Instagram post.

Reflect a population that feels vulnerable and stressed, reflecting a rapid increase in teen depression and anxiety, and an increase in suicides.

Face-to-face interaction is the most human thing we do. In being fully present to one another, we learn to listen, collaborate, and become independent thinkers. This neurologically wires the brain to reflect and to navigate exchanges of ideas and disagreements. Conversation nudges students up against their resistance to explore thinking, re-evaluate conclusions, voice difficult opinions, or own truths about their authenticity. It also promotes and challenges their developmental need to individuate.

Conversations between students stir thought, and become the playground where students toss around ideas that evolve into imagination and discovery. Such interaction also promotes critical thinking, interpersonal skills, and problem-solving abilities. 

Technology and screen addiction have psychological and neurological impacts on children, and it’s important for educators to understand this. Neurological and psychiatric research shows that too much screen time inhibits brain development at a time when adolescent are having their greatest surge of brain growth and maturation. Overuse of screens interferes with the adolescent’s ability to write and reorients their interpersonal relationships. The result is young people who are shaping their identity according to their external environment rather than their internal sense of self.  

Most adolescents I work with report that they’re tired and irritable most days. When asked if they sleep with their phones, 75 percent responded, “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” The number of pre-teens and teens sleeping less than seven hours most nights is on the increase. Their smartphones are cutting into REM sleep, which is essential for the development of emotional regulation, learning memory, and immune function. These hours of sleep allow young bodies to heal, restore energy, and regulate mood. 

I suggest to parents and adolescents that they try a month of putting their phones away at 10 each night and not touching them until it’s time to go to school. There’s always great resistance; however, those who take me up on it report sleeping better and admit they like not having to deal with friends texting or wanting to Snapchat during the night. A female 11th-grader recently reported, “I just tell my friends my parents take my phone at night and I hate that, but I really don’t. It’s actually a relief and I feel better.” 

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, refers to screen abuse as a virtual drug or “electronic cocaine.”

Teaching with Tech

While the potential impact of screen time is apparent, so is the reality that classroom technology isn’t a passing craze. In his book, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking our Kids—And How to Break the Trance, Nicholas Kardaras says, “Technology now dominates the education landscape. In almost every classroom in American today, you will find some type of screen: smart boards, Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones.”

Given this, it’s potentially tragic if we, as a community of educators, did not explore possible ways to balance screen use and student health. 

So how can educators step aside from the demand for higher test scores and other requirements and find time for the kind of interaction that leads to real, intrinsic learning? Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we abandon technology—it’s a helpful support to the learning process. However, I am suggesting that educators do what they can to relax screen time in the classroom and perhaps give that D.C. principal ‘s No Tech Tuesday a try.

Cutting Back on Classroom Screen Time

Here are a few exercises implemented by educators and designed to stretch student minds beyond screens.

Low-tech lesson. Plan screen-free classroom time regularly, in which students commit to keeping their tablets or computers in their desks, purses, or bookbags. At the end of each marking period, ask for reactions to the no-screen experience. 

Current conversations. Have students research a current event in a local or nationwide newspaper. If they don’t use the actual newspaper, have them print out the article, bring it to class, and share two or three questions that stir conversation. Students should be prepared to share their positions on the issue, defend them, and also listen to the opinions of classmates. Articles can incorporate the subject the class addresses, like art, reading, math, science, music, history, etc.

Sharing session. Print out an article or short story to share with students and invite them to critique the author, a character, or a position the article or story takes. Engage students through discussion of an issue the book addresses and ask them to share their opinions.

Socratic seminars. Ask students to put their desks in a circle. The teacher will select a topic or issue, but teacher is not in the circle nor does he/she facilitate the conversation. Students will speak up, or piggyback on one another’s thoughts, without raising hands. 

Word toss. For the first 5-10 minutes of class, toss out an unfamiliar vocabulary word that relates to your subject. Students, randomly, say what associations come to mind that relate to this word or can even try to use it in a sentence. As a variation, list an unfamiliar vocabulary word on the board. Students, when seated, take out a sheet of paper and write down 5 words that come to mind that define, explain or relate to this word. 

Create debate. Ask students to research screen use. Create a panel and have students prepare a debate on the pros and cons. After the debate, initiate a conversation with students on ways they can self-monitor their use of screens.

Dr. Fleshood is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Ashland, Virginia, and the author of From Tweens to Teens: The Parents’ Guide to Preparing Girls for Adolescence. 

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How Increasing Amounts of Screen Time Affects Young People


The Latest Findings:

Education studies, parents, and mental health specialists have observed that increased technology use is affecting young people in a variety of ways.

Studies have shown a correlation between screen time and increased aggression and depression. Teens hold in emotions rather than externalizing them in ways that bring clarity, conversation, and understanding. Their need to develop comfort with back-and-forth conversation, expression of opinions, and courage to face or confront someone with disagreement or displeasure is just not wired neurologically.  

Reading for pleasure and discussion among students has decreased in recent decades, according to Dr. Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology at UCLA, who says, “Reading develops imagination, induction, reflection, and critical thinking, as well as vocabulary in a way that visual media do not.” 

Jane Healy, author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds, spent years researching computer use in schools and concludes, “time on the computer might interfere with development of everything from the young child’s motor skills to his or her ability to think logically and distinguish between reality and fantasy.”

Isolation in the lunchroom has sharply increased among teens, as students are catching up on social-networking sites rather than exchanging conversation. 

Studies show that kids use the digital world to play with issues of identity, thus not establishing one of their own.


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