Rethinking School Screens: Why Our Kids Can’t Focus
By Melanie Hempe, BSN, Founder of ScreenStrong
When teachers put devices in the hands of kids and expect them to be productive, they’re expecting too much. Teaching kids with technology is analogous to having an AA meeting in a bar.
—Matt Miles, ScreenStrong Ambassador, author, and high school teacher (1)
Do you ever check your personal email or social media at work? Do you ever get distracted by Netflix or YouTube videos? Do you find yourself playing word games during a boring business meeting? We’re lying to ourselves if the answer isn’t yes to one of these. But as adults with our fully developed brains, we understand that eventually the work needs to get done. We understand that to play hard we need to work hard because we’re aware of the responsibilities of being an adult.
However, our kids don’t have a mature brain to limit their time on entertainment screens and they get distracted too, especially at school. The frontal cortex is the judgement center of the brain responsible for tasks such as impulse control, decision making, and time management. The frontal cortex takes 25 years to fully develop in order to fight temptations and stay on track.
Due to this natural developmental process, teens crave low effort high reward fun activities. Afterall, who wouldn’t choose to have fun over hard work? It can be a challenge to get them to focus on what they should be doing. As the mother of four children, I’ve learned a great deal about what we think our kids are doing versus what they’re actually doing at any given point during the day. For example, I asked my 15-year-old this past weekend to clean his bathroom before he went out with his friends. What do you think he was doing ten minutes later when I checked the filthy bathroom? He was riding his longboard in the driveway.
A lack of focus and maturity is a normal stage in his development which is why he needs structure and much direction from me as his parent-coach. Guidance is also necessary when it comes to mixing screens with school work.
Kids’ Brains and School Screens
Without constant adult supervision, students will struggle when it comes to managing school day screen distractions. Here’s why:
- Young people are conditioned to use their devices for entertainment purposes for most of their waking day; it is hard to break that habit and switch gears in the classroom.
For a child of any age, a screen is entertainment. Video games are entertainment. Social media and smartphones are entertainment. And, frustrating as it may be, school screens—especially those small enough to fit in a backpack—are, you guessed it, entertainment. A school screen doesn’t stop being a toy just because an adult asks a student to do something productive with it. Students can’t resist the temptation to play a game, instant message a classmate two rows over, shop, cheat, or check social media. It’s impossible for teens to avoid these distractions. Kids become addicted to screen entertainment, not building spreadsheets.
- Interactive screens activate the dopamine addiction reward pathway in the brain.
Yes, screen use activates the reward pathway along with various neurochemicals to keep the user engaged. This pathway is fueled by new and novel content, images, and unexpected rewards. Every addiction involves this reward pathway. Over half of teens today report that they are addicted to technology. (2) The addiction is more serious than most parents realize. We’re already at a disadvantage because childhood is a brief period of time to squeeze in necessary learning during each stage of development. The combination of multiple hours of screen use at school and the way the brain is wired creates a perfect environment to cultivate addictive screen habits. Habits that begin in childhood are difficult to break down the road.
- Interactive screens are overstimulating and distracting.
Teacher controlled educational school screens can be beneficial in the classroom but when private, personal laptops and smartphones are added to the school day, the chances for optimal learning has substantially decreased.
Imagine trying to concentrate on a difficult concept that your teacher is explaining in class then looking down at your laptop to read the notification that your favorite shoes just went on sale. This is the nature of personal screens. These distractions are detrimental to learning. Productivity and focus go down when personal screen distractions are present. So do grades.
Reports from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) that examine the effects of technology by researching international test results in more than 70 countries, say, “education systems which have invested heavily in information and communications technology have seen ‘no noticeable improvement’ in Pisa test results for reading, mathematics or science.” The study shows that “there is no single country in which the internet is used frequently at school by a majority of students and where students’ performance improved.” The countries and cities with the lowest use of the internet in school—South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan—are among the top performers on international tests. (3)
Just this month the national United States report card for 2019 reports that reading scores are on a downhill slide (4).
- The human brain craves belonging but learning is lonely.
The fear of missing out (FOMO) mixed with undeveloped self-control is an ideal testing ground for the persuasive design engineers who are paid to keep our kids glued to digital products. Because loneliness is a teen’s biggest fear, the desire to be constantly connected, to use smartphones during school, and message friends during homework is a normal temptation but not a wise idea. How many times have you assumed your student was doing laptop homework in their bedroom only to discover they were wasting time with friends on social media or on a video game? Twenty minutes of homework can easily turn into two hours of internet entertainment. Remember going to the library to do homework with a group of friends? Not much was accomplished there either.
What Are They Really Losing?
The loss of memory.
We may have a bigger problem on our hands than the temptation to play a silly video game during class. It has to do with empty brains. The plethora of information available to our kids at a click tempts them to bypass their own built in search engines: their brains. Why use energy memorizing facts to store in my own search engine when I can simply access another? Little do they realize that the act of memorizing is exercise for their growing brains, building memory neurons that are foundational to development.
If they lose the taste for words, develop an allergy to grammar, compress their attention spans, and become impatient with the time and space it takes to develop an idea, all the “big data” at their fingertips may prove of limited value, like a wasted resource for a generation that won’t know what to do with it. (5)
And the consequence of not exercising their memory results in the inability to develop strong memory skills. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Herein lies the experiment. Will our students utilize the time well that they’ve gained? I don’t think mine will.
The loss of attention.
With this loss of exercising memory skills comes another big loss. The loss of attention skills. Attention is the cornerstone of learning yet the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD has drastically risen.FN Like watching from the sidelines, it is impossible to get the benefit of exercise if one is not doing it.
The loss of integrity and character.
In addition to the run of the mill screen distractions (playing games, checking fantasy football scores, and messaging your crush during class), there are many other screen-based temptations that hurt students’ academics: cutting and pasting prefabricated homework answers from the internet, cheating during a test or homework by using a phone or smartwatch, using photo math apps to solve math problems, using google translate during your foreign language class, using VPNs to get around the school firewall, just to name a few. These shortcuts hurt our kids’ integrity and character in the long run.
View From the Classroom
Teachers can give the best insight on what’s really happening during school. Here’s what Matt Miles, high school teacher and co-author of Screen Schooled, has to say:
In the decade since the release of smartphones, I’ve never caught a student on his or her device talking with experts in Botswana about water conservation, or anything like it. Students play games, take selfies, and message their parents and friends. One student volunteered, ‘If you see me on my phone, there’s a 0 percent chance I’m doing something productive. If you see me on my laptop, there’s a 50 percent chance.’ Most students disagreed. They thought 50 percent was too high. A 2015 study found that teens are using technology for an average of nine hours a day. Almost all that time is spent using entertainment media (games, music, videos, chatting). (6)
In another observation, one teacher decided to gather some real time data in her classroom. She made her students turn up the volume on their phones and come to the front of the class to mark each time they received a notification. What was discovered? Distractions galore. Here were the results during one class period:
The Cost of Convenience
School screens can make life more convenient for teachers; adults crave low effort high reward too. Tracking the progress of a student via in-class quizzes, posting assignments, testing, grading and organizing class lectures also become easier. But is this convenience costing our students? The amount of time it takes to manage screen malfunctions during class, stay current on digital curriculum, and attend to distracted students is more than any of us predicted. When it comes down to measuring productivity, many of the traditional systems seem to take less time.
More screens in the classroom is not a solution. It’s the source of the problem. We might be surprised what we find when we redirect the brain power, innovation, creativity, and time that is being used to manage screen distractions toward in depth learning and more face time with teachers.
Solutions for a ScreenStrong Classroom
- Advocate for larger, community screens. Encourage teachers to move screen learning to a bigger screen at the front of the room. This one decision can reduce the need for desktop screens more than any other change.
- Use screens for quick visits only when necessary and for purposeful activities only. This means pulling them out of the backpacks only when needed then putting them away. We make accommodations for peanut allergies, we can make accommodations for excessive screen use.
- Monitor the overall minutes a child spends in front of a screen. This means that if they are on a screen for six hours at school every day parents need to set stricter time limits at home. Just because you are on your screen at work for eight hours a day doesn’t mean that your child’s brain is ready for that. Six hours is too long and not balanced for a developing brain.
- Keep a sharp eye on the content. If personal screens are out, teachers should be at the back of the classroom with an easy view of student screen activity or use monitoring software, both are extremely difficult to do. At home, have your child do homework at the kitchen table (not in his or her bedroom) where you can oversee the activity to maximize focus on the task. If your child needs to talk to a friend, hand over your phone to make the call, ask the question, and hang up.
- Choose paper over screens. Utilize textbooks, paper, and handwritten notes as much as possible to increase comprehension and decrease cognitive load (the energy required to process learning). Middle schools and high schools push for laptops in the classroom to prepare students for college. However, many college professors are banning laptop use in lecture halls due to rude interruptions and distractions. Your student still must learn how to focus and take hand-written notes.
- Don’t allow smartphones at school. Really. They can use the office phone if there is an emergency. Request that teachers stop asking students to use their phones to take photos of the board and look up facts. Think of all the learning they will get done without the added distraction. Added benefit: sharpening those in-person social skills.
Right now our students are on the losing end of this grand digital learning experiment. Even tech executives know this which is why they send their kids to low-tech schools. While we are dreaming of our kids conquering the world through their technological prowess, our kids are dreaming of bypassing the chore of learning, having fun, and being entertained during the school day. There’s many things in life that look good on paper but fail in the real-life execution.
Living ScreenStrong means you keep the benefits of technology but delay the harm. In a school setting, this means adults must pay close attention, take the lead, and plan only intentional time on tablets and laptops. The fact that technology is cool and fun doesn’t mean that it is ideal for the classroom. We need to work hard while we’re working, and play hard while we’re playing, but we can’t play while we work because nothing gets done. We ask our kids to learn new concepts on a daily basis, but then we give them entertainment screens full of distractions and get mad when they can’t focus in class. We hold our kids to a higher standard than ourselves. If we can’t stay focused at work with screen distractions technology, why do we expect our kids them to stay focused at school?
Perhaps screens were never meant to solve our classroom learning challenges after all. Perhaps real learning is sometimes tedious and does take hard work, grit, and discipline, not a new digital program. Perhaps it’s normal for our kids to crave riding their longboard with their friends over doing chores, because chores and homework are high effort, low reward activities. But we as parents know how this ends; we know the long term payoff for hard work, grit, and discipline. Let’s set our kids up for the best chance of success. Let’s give them all a head start.
- Education Week, “Want Kids to Use Tech Productively? That’s ‘Asking the Impossible.‘”
- Pew Research Center, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018.”
- BBC News, “Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, says OECD.”
- National Center for Education Statistics
- Education Week, “Digital Tech Is Gambling With Children’s Minds.“
- Education Week, “Want Kids to Use Tech Productively? That’s ‘Asking the Impossible.‘”
- Notification photo
Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder and executive director of ScreenStrong, a national nonprofit organization that offers a countercultural approach to eliminate childhood screen dependency, but one that just might save your kids. Melanie has developed cutting-edge programs that empower parents to pause video games and social media for kids and teens through late adolescence. Her three books can be found on Amazon: Will Your Gamer Survive College?, Can Your Teen Survive—and Thrive—Without a Smartphone? and The ScreenStrong Solution: How to free your child from addictive screen habits.
ScreenStrong is committed to rescuing this screen-driven generation, one family at a time.
Photo credit: Shutterstock