Pick your battles is one of my favorite teaching and parenting slogans.
I even have something I coined, no battle Friday, which takes place most Fridays during the school year in my classroom. It’s pretty much how it sounds.
On Fridays, I try my personal hardest not to engage in any battles with anyone about anything. However, there is one battle that I must pick every single time. And that is the technology battle.
It is my firm belief (based on inconclusive and unsubstantial, essentially nonexistent evidence) that unfettered access to tablets and smartphones are to this generation what cigarettes were to our parents and grandparents.
At the start of the pandemic, I read a Business Insider article filled with interview snippets from various tech company executives discussing rules and regulations they set for their own children’s screen time allowances. It turns out, they’re worried too.
The 2020 article highlights that “Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s middle-school-aged son doesn’t own a cell phone – and the TV can only be accessed with ‘activation energy,’’’ meaning the television is not easily accessible, and the children in his household have to go out of their way to sit and watch.
“Snapchat cofounder and CEO Evan Spiegel limits [his] 8-year-old’s screen time to 1.5 hours per week.”
And the list goes on.
What do they understand that we don’t?
Well for starters, “the more time you spend looking at a screen, the less time you spend in person interacting with others,” reminds the UNC Health Talk in its article, What Your Phone Might Be Doing to Your Brain.
How simple. How revolutionary. If practice makes perfect, then our kids might be missing out on some crucial socialization, especially coming off an isolating pandemic. And so I continue to wage my personal little battle within the four walls of my classroom.
When I stand in front of my class and address all of my students at once, the first thing I say is, “Thank you to the people who are already listening and ready, without their device in front of them.” The second thing I say is, “Please close your iPads.” Typically that happens to also be the third, fourth, and fifth thing I end up saying.
My refrain is often met with the following: “But I’m listening to you, Ms. Larson. I’m paying attention.”
“Yes,” I reply, “possibly that could be true, but having your screen as a barrier is a little rude. I want to see your eyes. I want to make sure you’re following along, grasping, understanding and engaging in what is being presented, explained and shared. And I can’t tell that when you’re playing a game or watching a TikTok.”
I get a lot of push back from my students on my technology rules. Par for the middle school course. Some of this pushback is delivered to me verbally, accompanied by an eye-roll and scoff; maybe an irritated ugh.
But some of the push back comes in the form of action: Kids continue to use their devices while I’m talking, regardless of my repeated pleas to put them away. Did they hear me?
When this happens, my next step is to approach them directly and whisper my request in their general vicinity. If that doesn’t work, then I am forced to take away the device; to calmly ask for their iPad and temporarily place it on my desk. This is ALWAYS my last resort, because it doesn’t teach self-control. However, their refusal to acquiesce signals they may have a deficit when it comes to tech self-regulation.
I ask myself why this might be. Why is it so hard for kids to give up these devices, to listen attentively to direct instructions or to the words of their peers?
I think about myself, recognizing distracted behavior is not new. I passed paper notes at various times throughout my middle and high school years.
I also think about how addicted I am to my own smartphone. How much I rely on it for communication and updates about my kid while he’s at school. The ClassDojo is my absolute favorite app.
I’m a full-grown adult, and I often have to set goals to limit my own screen time. Often I fail, because that hit of dopamine we experience when someone likes or comments on a post is not only validating, it’s addicting. It is difficult for kids and adults alike to willingly cut themselves off from instant gratification.
I am not technology resistant. I rely on the student iPads as a teaching tool as much as the next teacher. Google Classroom, however messy and incomprehensible it might be to the untrained eye, is my friend.
But how do we as educators strike that perfect balance? How do we show kids the importance of giving their undivided attention to humans, while simultaneously celebrating what these devices have to offer?
I don’t know. Because this tightrope walk is a tricky dance. And I’m beginning to lose my balance more often than not.
The other night at dinner, my mother-in-law mentioned casually, “Have you noticed that these kids can barely even have a conversation anymore without checking their phones?”
I nodded. Yes, I have. And it’s not just the kids.
As the values of the previous generations become more obsolete, will eye contact simply stop mattering? Will face-to-face interactions remain a priority? What will happen to human connection? Is this a losing battle? Is it even worth the fight?
In my classroom, the answer is yes.
This column by Simone Larson, an education columnist at the RoundTable, originally appeared in Laron’s blog, Simone Says.
Bravo! As a grandparent of middle/high schoolers, I think that schools made a mistake in not shifting back to books from iPads after the pandemic. I know that change would be hard for teens (and teachers), but being on their devices all the time during school just feeds the beast of inattention.
Excellent and so true. Wonderful article.