Are classroom computers making kids smarter or more distracted?
If your children had a choice, would they choose to hang out in the research section of the public library for hours a day studying, or check social media and play video games instead?
Mine would choose to play games.
I now know that expecting a teen to spend hours in educational work on his school laptop is unrealistic. It is a myth that our family learned about the hard way.
Like many families, when our oldest son started ninth grade, we were nervously excited about the new mandatory school laptop program. The promise that this technology would create a tech-smart superkid, increase his learning potential, raise his GPA, help grow his SAT score, and promise him a big 21st century job was compelling. Our kids were going to be even smarter than us with all this new educational technology!
However, I had an uneasy feeling when he started regularly “studying” well into the middle of the night. Could he possibly be that concerned about his homework? He still couldn’t even remember to make his lunch or wear deodorant. Had his laptop turned him into a study-addict or was the promise of a more engaging education like a too-good-to-be-true infomercial? His fanatical thrill over this new toy was my first parenting clue that trouble was on the horizon. My second clue was what happened next.
Schools and parents were all trying to do our best to bring the best of technology to our students’ educational experience. While we were busy convincing ourselves that our new digi-learners were going to be intellectually curious and that all the necessary firewalls were in place, the kids were far ahead of us. Instead of spending hours researching interesting history facts, challenging math problems, and fascinating facts about sharks, my son was using his laptop to do what every normal ninth grade boy from any generation would do: cycle through mindless YouTube videos, play video games, and secretly browse female anatomy. Nothing new under the sun. They were not, however, experiencing a newfound thirst for educational knowledge.
His new toy quickly filled in the nooks and crannies of his life, replacing the motivation to participate in sports, continue developing his piano talent, and even hang out with real people. Sadly, the screen had become his master. I found it impossible to manage his time on his personal school laptop. His constant use of it for non-educational purposes, combined with a growing video game habit, jump-started a screen addiction that eventually resulted in his dropping out of college four years later.
The story of our son took place 11 years ago. I have now logged a grand total of 38 “school years” between our four children and have subsequently been further educated on technology and the efficacy of school laptop programs. I am keenly aware of what kids (yes, even your kids) do on mandatory school laptops. All are well-intentioned kids with very normal, but immature, frontal cortexes in the brain doing what normal kids do on screens: wasting time. I have logged hundreds of “listening” hours between teachers, teens, college students, and shocked parents who are learning for the first time that their child truly wasn’t ready for the added screen temptations and responsibilities of a personal screen at school. I hear over and over from parents, “My child’s school laptop has become the most divisive issue in our home.” Looking back now it seems so obvious, but like many issues that arise on our parenting journey, we become wiser only after the damage has been done.
Personal laptops in school fail to deliver on all their promises.
If the claims are true that tech is making our kids smarter, improving their focus and critical thinking, sharpening their memories and social skills, and preparing them for college, then why are they more anxious, depressed, socially awkward, and unprepared with basic life (and computer) skills?
Laptops work well for typing papers, building spreadsheets, and researching bibliographies. But they do not help with increasing your students’ concentration and critical thinking skills or making the real human connections that are paramount to learning.
As Joe Clement and Matt Miles, veteran teachers and authors of the research-packed book Screen Schooled, point out, “It is not productive to bring personal laptops into the classroom. Kids are not great decision makers, and they are even worse with impulse control. The more we put them on screens in class, the more they are going to goof off.”
Fortunately, today’s parents have the gift of 15 years of brain science, research, and growing evidence affirming that screens hinder learning in the classroom setting. Teachers are also observing that when smaller screens (laptops and smartphones) replace the larger ones (smartboards), it becomes almost impossible to manage student activity. As one teacher put it, “We’ve never felt like drop-kicking books or textbooks, but it’s really easy to visualize drop-kicking the laptops across the room several times per day!”
Current research about student personal laptop use in the classroom.
- Academic performance suffers when individual student laptops are present. Studies show a direct correlation between personal laptop use in the classroom and lower grades, GPAs and SAT scores.(1) Even without checking social media sites and playing online games, personal screen use (i.e. tablets, laptops) can easily interfere with learning.(2)
- Screen distractions cause fragmented learning. Focus and attention are challenged in the classroom when students must divide their attention between their screen entertainment and their teacher. In order for optimal learning to take place, classroom tools should not be distracting attention or triggering a dopamine rush. Unfortunately, personal screens do both. They can increase the stress hormones cortisol and often make it harder to tackle mental challenges.(3)
- Screens can easily create a heavy cognitive load for your student. During the learning process students must first pay attention. Next, they must mentally organize the material, and then finally integrate it with their existing knowledge on the subject. New information is moved from short-term memory to long-term memory. If the cognitive load, or mental effort needed to process material, is overloaded, the short-term memory area of the brain will not be able to retain the material long enough to send it to long-term memory.(4)
- When students are learning new material, the delivery methods should be simple. The teacher must create an environment with as few distractions as possible to decrease the extraneous load on the students’ limited short-term memory. Layers of screen distractions in the form of fast-paced videos, bright visuals, music/narration on top of text, can make the learning process more difficult. The amount of screen stimulation can easily exceed the student’s ability to focus, concentrate, and process what they are learning. Simply put, when there are fewer distractions more information can be processed and learned.(5)
- Screen multitasking changes brains. The multitasking activity on a screen (quickly jumping from one idea or website/app to the next) is hard to resist and can also keep a student from focusing on the right topic. Multitasking puts demands on cognitive resources by also increasing the cognitive load.(6) Dividing attention between screens and teachers strains focus and diminishes retention. Over time, the multitasker prefers to keep multitasking, further limiting the long-term memory centers of the brain.(7) In short, when a child is listening to a teacher he will retain less if he is looking down at his screen. Imagine having an important talk with your teen across the dinner table when he is gazing at his laptop. What will he retain?
- Students sitting near peers using personal screens also do worse. Studies show that students who sat near peers who were multitasking with screens were more distracted and overall scored lower on tests.(6) It is not unusual for college professors to ask students with laptops to sit in the back of the lecture hall for this reason.
- Laptops present enticing temptations. The presence of a laptop can create an illusion that academic work is being accomplished. More often, surfing videos, shopping online, watching movies, and chatting are taking place. (Take a close look at the picture above for proof.) Creative cheating via personal screens is another ongoing problem that often proves to be a temptation too great for students to resist.(8)
- Handwritten note-taking trumps typing notes. Writing notes by hand versus typing is associated with improved long-term information retention, better thought organization, and increased ability to generate ideas. Transcription (typing notes on a laptop) does not engage the mind in the same way.(9) Even colleges today are relying on this research and promoting handwritten note-taking; many are prohibiting laptops in their lectures.
- Comprehensive professional development is critical for classroom technology to be effective. The lesson is only as good as the teacher and the lesson prep. For a teacher, the screen is a tool. But for the child, the screen is a wonderland of entertainment possibilities. A classroom full of shiny new laptops does not guarantee that learning is taking place. In fact, much time and effort is required of teachers to know the most effective means for using the laptops to enhance learning objectives and keep the class focused on educational content. Like walking a tightrope, it is not easy to pull that off without extensive training and skill.
A few years after our experience, the school abandoned the ninth grade laptop program. Students used laptops from a cart as needed during the day. More importantly, they were given more time to spend on non-screen activities like really listening to the teacher in class, taking notes by hand, and hanging out with peers at lunch.
Here are the most common questions I hear from parents in regards to laptops in the classroom:
Don’t they need to learn general computer skills for college? They sure do. Many digi-kids today don’t know how to type properly, identify a valid research article, download a document—much less find one on their computer—or check, write and manage their personal email. A computer skills class is helpful for any teen to be job ready but spending three to four years with a laptop on your desk does not automatically make you proficient at computer skills. Kids don’t need more practice on social media, YouTube, or Google. They need more practice with tools like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
What about computer coding classes? Sign them up! Learning computer science concepts and coding is not causing your child to become addicted to his screen. In fact, many teachers don’t even use computers to teach the basic concepts. Generally, these classes are one period each day, not six hours. Many computer science concepts like binary numbers, algorithms and data compression can be taught best for students using engaging games, puzzles and cards, which work well without the distraction of a laptop. This method is preferable according to some experts.(10)
But my kids have to learn how to manage screen time, right? Having more screen time will not teach your child how to manage more screen time! Screens do not teach self-control. Screen management skills will come slowly only as the frontal cortex matures and as your children strengthen their ability to oversee other areas of their lives. School time should be spent setting up lifelong learning habits and social skills. Playing video games, scrolling on social media, and retreating into isolation on a screen during the school day are powerful temptations that work against child development.
Can my child get around the school firewall? Yes, many can. The challenge to get through the security settings is an exciting temptation for teens; it’s peer-driven and fun. Simply using a hot spot on their phone or finding a proxy server will do the trick.
Shouldn’t we make learning as fun as possible? The gamification of learning dangerously conditions your child’s brain to bypass the grit and hard work and that uncomfortable feeling that accompanies the learning process. Part of learning to learn is getting used to making it through the frustration that comes right before the “ah-ha” moment. Building determination and grit is essential for lifelong learning habits to take root; that is not easily learned on a screen where the answers are just an easy click away.
How can I take away a screen when my child needs to do homework? School screens create a lot of wasted time and a dependency that looks and acts like an addiction. During school hours, laptop entertainment easily replaces the study hall studying, the lunchroom chatter and the break time connections with peers. However, it doesn’t just stop there. The distraction continues when they get home. Now the parents have a new full-time job of monitoring their kids’ screens. While the laptop comes with some benefits, do those benefits outweigh the extra work that will be required to keep their time balanced? When kids have their own laptops, time will not only be wasted in class but throughout the remainder of the day and night.
Notes for Parents
When it comes to technology, it is so easy to trust what you don’t know. Educational technology companies promise that “low-effort, high-reward” learning will take place with more technology in the classroom and actually will be superior to traditional learning methods. Like parents, schools are under constant pressure to keep up with culture and invest in the latest, shiny new gadget or software to promote learning. Parents must be engaged and support a balanced approach.
Children have too much screen time throughout the day. The combination of screen time at school and at home adds up. Often, students who do their school work on the laptop are distracted and will remain online until late into the night. It is difficult to make positive choices when a laptop or smartphone is available. The lack of downtime compromises creativity and self-reflection. Likewise, sedentary habits begin to develop which can cause grades to plummet and attention problems to escalate.
Can a child’s behavior be impacted by screen usage? When a child gets immersed in a digital game for example, for over 30 minutes, blood is diverted from the frontal cortex to the fight/flight center of the brain. This activity increases the chance for behavior problems, anxiety, and stress and paves the brain pathways responsible for forming compulsion loops (e.g. gambling) in the brain. This is how screen activities “rewire” the brain and can explain the 53% increase in ADHD symptoms and diagnoses over the last 10 years.(11) Shockingly, one in five high school boys are now being diagnosed with hyperactivity.(12) Yes, screens can contribute to poor behavior in your child.
Screen usage can affect homework time. More homework can be completed without watching YouTube videos, shopping online, and keeping your Snap Streak running. It is no wonder so many students require a tutor these days. To show the extent of the problem, a private tutor (who charges $85/hour) explained to me that her primary focus was keeping the student off social media and group texting during his homework time.
There is a difference between brining your own laptop from home and using the school-provided laptop. The bring-your-own-device policies are causing problems in schools partly because teachers are not able to manage the personal property of a student. When the child is using a screen that lives at school it not only is easier for the teacher to manage but common sense tells us that the student may be more cautious around installing games, apps and other distractions. But once the child takes over physical ownership, things change. They are more tempted to go to abuse the privilege because their actions are perceived as being more private and secret. With ownership comes a mentality of control.
Consider these best practices when implementing screen use for educational purposes:
- Keep your student’s laptop on the kitchen table (or public area) for homework where you can view what your child is doing.
- Know how many hours a day your child is on his classroom screen. Talk to the teachers about how technology is specifically being used in the classroom.
- Reduce screen use if your child’s teacher reports attention problems at school.
- Do screen homework before other homework to limit late-night screen work.
- Don’t allow screen homework in the bedroom.
- Don’t allow smartphones during homework time.
- Cut off screen time an hour before bed.
- Install parental controls but know that they are not 100% effective.
- Eliminate entertainment use of screens (gaming and social media) during class or for rewards when work is done.
- Use screens for specific learning objectives with a beginning and an end goal. Then put the screens away. There is no need for the ongoing distraction sitting on the desk.
- Encourage handwritten note-taking.
- Be aware of screen addiction warning signs in your students and communicate them to parents as necessary.
- Assign non-tech projects when possible and encourage public speaking and presentations in class.
- Use email communication rather than texting students.
- Provide education for parents. Schools should be diligent about educating parents as more screen time is used in the classroom. More usage during the school day should mean less usage at home.
My younger children are benefitting from the mistakes I made with my oldest son. I keep a closer eye on the signs of screen overuse. Just like parents, schools are under a lot of pressure to keep up with the culture. So stay ahead of the curve, do your homework, raise awareness in your school community, and be an advocate for your child. Our kids only have one shot to reach their full potential during their school years; let’s make it count!
To assist you in sharing this research with other parents and administrators in your community, we’ve compiled this downloadable handout for easy reference.
- Patterson, Richard W. “Computers and Productivity: Evidence from Laptop Use in the College Classroom.” Economics of Education Review, Pergamon, 4 Mar. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272775716307129.
- “You Know Laptops Hurt GPA, But You Might Be Surprised by How Much.” EAB Daily Briefing, www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/04/12/leaving-the-laptop-at-home-could-mean-the-difference-between-a-b-plus-and-an-a-.
- Junco, Reynol. “In-Class Multitasking and Academic Performance.” Computers in Human Behavior, Pergamon, 28 July 2012, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563212001926.
- Harvard, Blake. “Cognitive Load Theory and Applications in the Classroom.” Noba, 6 Dec. 2017, nobaproject.com/blog/2017-12-06-cognitive-load-theory-and-nbsp-applications-nbsp-in-the-classroom.
- Lee, Hyunjeong, et al. “Optimizing Cognitive Load for Learning from Computer-Based Science Simulations.” Journal of Educational Psychology, American Psychological Association. Journals Department, 750 First Street NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242. Tel: 800-374-2721; Tel: 202-336-5510; Fax: 202-336-5502; e-Mail: Order@Apa.org; Web Site: Http://Www.apa.org/Publications., 31 Oct. 2006, eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ746521. PDF
- Sana, Faria, et al. “Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers.” Computers & Education, Pergamon, 30 Oct. 2012, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131512002254.
- Clement, Joe, and Miles, Matt. Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2018.
- Tribune, Chicago. “New Technology Lets Students Cheat More Than Ever.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 7 Aug. 2012, www.businessinsider.com/new-technology-lets-students-cheat-more-than-ever-2012-8 .
- Mueller, Pam A. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” SAGE Journal, 23 Apr. 2014, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581?journalCode=pssa.
- “Activities.” Computer Science Unplugged, classic.csunplugged.org/activities/.
- Schwarz, Alan, and Sarah Cohen. “A.D.H.D. Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/04/01/health/more-diagnoses-of-hyperactivity-causing-concern.html.
- “ADHD on the Rise: 1 in 5 High School-Age Boys Diagnosed with Hyperactivity.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 1 Apr. 2013, www.foxnews.com/health/2013/04/01/adhd-on-rise-1-in-5-high-school-age-boys-diagnosed-with-hyperactivity.html.