Technology and Our Students’s Lives

Earlier this month, I attended the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute’s 2018 Leadership Lab in Colorado Springs. It was a great time to learn about leadership education, students’ brains, technology, group dynamics, and social and emotional education. One of the things that kept coming up and has profound effects for how we teach and how we interact with our students is their use of technology.

We heard presentations by Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair about her research, published in The Big Disconnect, about the amount of “screen time” that students have, how they spend it, and the effects it has on them. To give you the sense of some of the big ideas, here are some quotations from Dr. Jean M. Twenge’s Atlantic article about smartphones (summarizing her book):

The time that seniors spend on activities such as student clubs and sports and exercise has changed little in recent years. Combined with the decline in working for pay, this means iGen teens have more leisure time than Gen X teens did, not less. So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.

According to the results of the nationally representative Monitoring the Future survey, Dr. Twenge says:

All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.

Again, based on the survey, Dr. Twenge says:

The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.

There is even a difference between how boys and girls are responding to the use of smartphones. Regarding the increased suicide rate in adolescents as a whole, Dr. Twenge says:

Girls have also borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens. Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.

Why is this happening? Dr. Twenge indicates one reason:

Electronic devices and social media seem to have an especially strong ability to disrupt sleep. Teens who read books and magazines more often than the average are actually slightly less likely to be sleep deprived—either reading lulls them to sleep, or they can put the book down at bedtime. Watching TV for several hours a day is only weakly linked to sleeping less. But the allure of the smartphone is often too much to resist. Sleep deprivation is linked to myriad issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure. It also affects mood: People who don’t sleep enough are prone to depression and anxiety.

Dr. Steiner-Adair explains another: what students are doing on social media. In a summary of her own book for NAIS, she writes:

The Internet and social media make it possible for students to connect in all kinds of engaging, healthy, fun, and even life-saving ways. It’s crucial to remember that the majority of teen interactions online are positive. When they use the Internet constructively, students on the social margins can often connect across friendship groups and discover a new center. But, of course, the flip side to online engagement is its potentially detrimental influence on behavior and the consequences of that behavior in students’ relationships and learning…. In real-time or online seminars with faculty instructors, we see the best of both worlds. Students learn together online, but because a teacher is present, they don’t call each other bad names or do stupid, crude stuff. However, when they’re doing homework, although they may be on a school-related website, in the privacy of their homes and without an adult present, they often behave in ways that are distracting, inappropriate, or worse, highly charged and disturbing. I’m referring to behavior that seriously crosses the line between what is socially responsible behavior, as defined by the school’s culture and values, and what is socially acceptable and normative behavior on sites like Tumblr, Tinder,, Snapchat, and Kik.

Dr. Steiner-Adair also points out another problem with the use of technology (which relates to Dr. Twenge’s comment about sleep deprivation):

Often beginning with the caveat that they [students she’s interviewing] “love tech and can’t imagine life without it,” they describe the range of emotions and distress that are always just a click away: an unexpected and hurtful or inflammatory text or email, a text war, or gossipy online banter. This edgy digital drumbeat can amp up anxiety levels for senders and receivers alike. Some of the things I hear about, and confirmed in research, include increased self-consciousness about appearance and increased body dissatisfaction after seeing everyone’s “perfect photo.” There is anxiety about being unpopular, and stress about the parties and events they see in posted photos but which they weren’t invited to. They lose hours of study time and sleep, “addicted” to “just checking.” The worry about what people are “saying” (texting) runs day and night.

So what do we do about this emotional health crisis?

According to the gcLi workshop (and it makes sense to me), we do our best to provide a safe space for students at school, free of harassment and where they can speak about their emotions safely. In doing so, we need to help them understand, how to talk about, and regulate their emotions. Hand in hand with this is teaching students to actively listen to and respect each others’ emotional states as well as to feel empathy and compassion.

As it turns out, I have written a lot of blog posts about students’ emotions, how to manage students’ emotions in class so that they learn better, and encourage positive emotional health:

There are also a lot of other intriguing resources or websites that I have found, or were recommended at the gcLi workshop, that may be helpful:

This last piece ends with a helpful observation:

But what’s clear from the current review is that teaching these cognitive “soft skills” shouldn’t be seen as something beyond academic achievement, but in fact a technique that may provide both a boost to academic results at school, and the important social and emotional literacy required to succeed in adulthood.



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