American youth are spending an alarming amount of time online. According to a pre-pandemic report, the average American teen spends approximately seven hours online per day. With remote learning in full swing for a little over half of American elementary and high school schools, students are spending even more time in front of a screen: By some accounts, students are getting up to 5 or 6 hours of additional technology use per day.
Recently, both teachers and parents have started questioning the value in spending long stretches of the day in front of a screen participating in synchronous, online classes. And with the recent release of the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” there is lots of discussion around the inherently addictive characteristics of social media and its effect on teens. Now more than ever, conversations around how and why youth spend time online are paramount. Here’s how teachers can kickstart those conversations with students.
Begin a Dialogue
For teachers working remotely, addressing this issue with their students may seem somewhat hypocritical: “Get online, spend most of your school day on Zoom with me but then spend the rest of your day technology-free.” A recently released statement regarding screen time from the American Academy of Pediatrics does not cite specific hours of screen use time per age group. But for many people, calculating the actual time spent online each day is eye-opening. Discussing this information can launch teachers and students into deeper conversations around self-awareness and time management.
For teachers, understanding how much time individual students spend online outside of school can inform more relationship-building discussions. Actively listening to student answers to questions such as “What is your favorite game, website or app?” or “What do you find fun or interesting when online” can spark better understanding of your students. These conversations serve a deeper purpose as well. For students, reflecting on their daily technology use is the first step in developing a sense of agency. Engaging in contemplative discussions around questions, such as “Why am I spending this time on social media?” instead of broad lectures (e.g., “Don’t spend too much time online”) shifts the conversation towards self-reflection and away from simple adherence.
Use Technology Deliberately
With the transition to remote and hybrid learning, educators are using many useful and engaging online tools for teaching and learning. Companies such as Edpuzzle and Flipgrid provide interactive tools to actively engage students with academic content. But when reviewing and planning, educators must reflect on the value such resources provide. Questions such as “Does this tool significantly improve my students learning experience?” or “Does this technology engage my students in active learning?” are important to consider when incorporating more technology into your teaching, especially when teaching remotely.
For students, guiding conversations around this same thinking can help them become more aware of their own technology use. Students should start to consider not only what they do online but why they’re reaching for their phone or laptop in the first place. The Center for Humane Technology provides a set of digital well-being guidelines that teachers can use to introduce this thinking. The goal is to have students view technology as a tool rather than an end in itself.
Rates of anxiety, depression and suicide among teens are growing at an alarming rate. Many experts point to the rise in smartphone/technology use as a major factor. For others, this correlation may not be so clear cut. Despite this debate, there are plenty of other daily practices that are shown to improve mental well-being. Exercise, time spent outside, developing positive relationships and engaging in activities that provide a sense of self-esteem and purpose are protective factors that improve mental well-being.
Honoring these various other protective factors is key for teachers and students alike. Simple prompts such as “Can I replace my technology use with an activity that will aid my well-being?” “Did I spend time outside today?” or “What else can I do that brings joy to my day?” can spark conversations in classrooms, in faculty meetings and at home. Starting with small changes—even just for 5 minutes a day—will help both teachers and students begin to take charge of both their time on technology and thinking more holistically about their overall well-being.
With the current state of the world, we are all are faced with an obligation to become more attuned to the increasing role technology use plays in our everyday lives. Providing tools and resources that teachers and students can use to both reflect and take action are key components in navigating this new norm.