“But They’re Always on Their Phones!”: How to Help Students Find Balance with Technology
There is a lot of discussion in schools today about how to help students balance their technology use, but it’s a complicated issue. Of course, we want to provide students with the latest tech tools if we feel it will help our students succeed, but this means that we often end up putting technology in our students’ hands – or putting them in front of screens – for a good chunk of their school day. At the same time, it drives many educators crazy when they see students distracted by their own technology use — students checking their phones during work time or talking about the marathon gaming sessions that kept them up late the night before. For teachers caught in the middle of these two “worlds” (i.e. the world of tech for education and tech for entertainment) there is often an overwhelming sense of frustration: What can we possibly do when we only see students a few hours a day, but meanwhile, our students go out into the world and spend unchecked hours online? If you’ve ever wondered how you could help students find balance — keep reading.
The good news is there are actions we can take as individual teachers to help students find balance and reduce the number of hours they spend staring at their screens. No, we won’t solve the issue overnight, but we can help students become more aware of how they use technology, and how we contribute to their daily habits. Consider these steps.
1. Help students learn about their daily habits.
A lot of us worry that students are spending too much time in front of screens, but we may not realize how many hours are dedicated to schoolwork. If we want to help students, we need to help them get a handle on how everything adds up.
The best way to do this is give students a screen time survey: ask how many hours they spend per day on tech and include separate questions on personal use and school use. You can use this survey as a springboard for discussions about healthy habits, but you can also use it to create guidelines for how many hours per day or week you (or your school) should be contributing to kids’ screen time. Of course, not all screen time is created equal, but if we look at the studies on sleep, blue light, distractibility, etc. the distinctions become less clear. We can do our part to give students more time away from tech and more time building communication skills and social skills – things many kids can’t do at home.
2. Help students develop awareness about how screen time affects their mood.
As part of your screen time survey, ask students to share how they feel about the technology they use in school: What uses engage them or help them learn? Which ones could they do without? How do they feel about their daily screen time totals? This helps your students develop awareness around their own technology usage, and if your goal is to refine how much time you require students to be engaged with technology, it will help you revise your lessons, too.
It is harder to get kids to think about how their personal technology use impacts them, since usually they will say they like social media or gaming, etc., but this year I tried this simple mindfulness activity with my teenager, and she said it actually made her think about her phone use in a new way. Here it is:
Ask kids to “take their temperature” before and after social media use: Just before logging in, take a moment to recognize your emotions: tired, bored, happy? Then do the same when you log out or set down your phone. Do you feel better, worse, the same? Try to do this as often as you can. This will help you realize the real impact of the social media app. It is a good way to start thinking about the value of social media in our lives.
3. Share your thoughts and/or expectations on screen time with parents, especially if you teach middle school or high school. I think we could help kids more if teachers and parents worked together: Teachers think parents are too lax about screen time, while parents often feel kids have too much school time in front of screens. Parents also feel powerless to stop tech use when students proclaim, “but I need my computer tonight — it’s for school!” So, if you (or your school) has guidelines in place about how much time kids should be spending on homework online — or if you are dedicated to limiting weekly screen time in school for kids, share your intentions, and even your research, with parents so they can work as allies with you if they choose.
4. Make technology use more intentional for students — and yourself
Review your lessons and make sure you believe the technology you use really enhances student learning. Be especially critical of any activity that favors technology at the expense of social interaction or opportunities for student dialogue. Students, especially our most vulnerable, need as many opportunities as they can to develop these skills in school. We realize they may go home to “hide” behind their screens at night, but we can change that in our classrooms. We can also use all of the free classroom lessons available through the Common Sense Education website to keep students engaged in meaningful discussions about tech use throughout the year.