Balancing the Benefits of Technology Against Overuse

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The question of how to respond to and manage technology in schools is at the center of a hot and important debate. We see the potential of technology to open the knowledge of the world to students. Technology can empower students to discover, create, innovate, and communicate at levels rarely imagined by past generations. It holds the promise of playing a key role in transforming the way learning is experienced.

At the same time, young people on average are spending up to nine hours per day engaged in entertainment media, leaving little time for in-person interpersonal engagement, academic learning, and other important life roles and responsibilities. Even when students are reading, studying, and engaging in other academic tasks, they often are “multitasking” by checking social media, engaging in unrelated online conversations, and other activities. However, research by the American Psychological Association (2006) has shown that multitasking is really “task switching,” stopping one activity to engage in another. The result is lessened concentration and recall, increased potential for confusion and misunderstanding, and reduced productivity. In short, while technology holds the potential to open the world, it is too often having the impact of squeezing out learning.

These two competing roles intersect with our efforts to capture and maintain the attention of students, help them develop skills like concentration and critical thinking, and build the capacity to engage with and make sense of the world around them. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the technology world is actively designing software applications to encourage preoccupation with and “addiction” to their products.

For many young people, the pull of technology—and especially social media—is so strong that they feel powerless to resist it. During adolescence, a developmental stage when learning is at its peak, we risk students not developing crucial cognitive and social skills. Additionally, the stage of brain development experienced during adolescence makes young people especially vulnerable to dependency and addiction. At this stage of development, young people typically are not yet ready to understand the long-term consequences of their behavior.

Without question, we face a complex and crucial challenge to help students balance and manage life tasks and responsibilities in a world of irresistible technology pull. There is some good news: The issue of designed-in addiction is starting to be recognized and confronted as investors and members of the public are pushing back at developers. However, a major change in the advertising-driven business model of social media developers is needed to reduce incentives to constantly pull users to engage in their applications.

The question remains as to what we can do in the meantime. Here are five actions to consider:

  • For students and parents who want to reduce or disengage from use, check out support tools such as Moment (https://inthemoment.io/). It is a monitoring application that can track screen usage, suggest alternate activities, and monitor metrics to support efforts to change.
  • Share with students the consequences of excessive screen time on their brains and bodies in an open and honest way. Avoid “preaching.” Rather, discuss with students what it means to make good, balanced choices for their own benefit.
  • Encourage students to self-assess the impact of their usage by asking themselves questions such as: Do I need media to put myself in a good mood? Do I become angry or anxious when forced to separate from media? Do I sneak opportunities for screen time? Does my use interfere with family and other social activities? Responding “yes” to one or more of these questions may suggest that they have a problem.
  • While you may employ technology and social media to support some learning activities, set aside times that are media-free to engage students in high-intensity focus and critical thinking activities.
  • Monitor your own screen usage, especially in the presence of students. Be certain that you are fully present for them as a model.

You may have additional ideas and strategies to help in this effort. If so, please share them with us by responding to this blog.

 

 

Resources:
American Psychological Association. (2006, March 20). Multitasking: Switching costs. Retrieved from APA website: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx
Kamenetz, A. (2018). The art of screen time: How your family can balance digital media and real life. New York: Public Affairs.
Kardaras, N. (2016). Glow kids: How screen addiction is hijacking our kids—and how to break the trance. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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