To the Teacher:
Mounting piles of new psychological and educational research show that internet distractions and screen addiction have a powerful negative effect on students’ learning – and teachers have known it to be true all along.
Tech distractions were a problem before the pandemic. Remote learning only strengthened these tendencies. As schools return to in-person learning, many students are struggling to readjust after a period of endless screen time. Getting past the power struggles over students’ phone use might take serious effort and investment of class time, but ultimately, our students’ well-being and success depend on a healthy relationship with tech. They are worth the effort!
In this two-part lesson, students process some of the current research on cell phone use, interview a family member to share their learning, and perhaps co-create a class plan to reduce phone distractions.
Day 1: Research & Discussion
Introduce the topic by explaining that the pandemic and remote learning made all of us – young people and adults – more dependent on the internet, and as we return to in-person learning, it’s important to reflect on how it affects us now.
As a whole class, ask students to share some of the pros or cons of phones and technology. Students may mention pros like connecting us to distant people and finding new information more easily, and cons like cyberbullying, distractions, or theft.
Mixer Activity: The Research
Print copies of this handout, which contains facts gleaned from research on phones and technology.
Make two copies if you have 14-26 students and three copies if you have 27 or more. Cut into slips.
Explain that today, students will get the chance to explore some surprising research about how phones and technology affect learning and mental health. They will each get one of 13 different facts, and they will try to collect as many other facts as they can from classmates before the time is up.
Distribute a slip to each student. (Take a fact yourself and join the mixer as well, so that you can help guide students who are having trouble.)
Then ask students to find a partner. With their partner they should:
- Read their fact out loud to the other. Explain that it’s important to read out loud so that they can hear the fact again and to help start a conversation.
- Synthesize the facts. Each pair of students should find a connection between the facts or a question about what the facts mean.
- Once the pair has processed the information, they can each go on to pair up with another person and follow the same steps.
As the mixer starts to slow down, remind students that there are 13 total facts to find and invite them to find as many more as they can in the next few minutes.
As a whole class, invite students to share some of the most important connections or questions that came up during the mixer. Record students’ responses on the board.
My own class noted that:
- Social media seems to separate people emotionally.
- Cell phones seem to cause a lot of problems with learning.
Students may make personal connections to research findings. They may also share some questions, such as: Is this research true? (Yes. Invite students to search the references given.)
Give each student an interview worksheet.
Tell students that they’ve seen some of the research, so their job now is to think about their own experiences and connect them to this research. Ask:
- Do you you yourself use screens more than you would like?
- If so, what impact is this having on you? (e.g., Does it affect your mood, focus, or memory?)
- If not, are there other people in your life that you feel may be negatively affected by their phone use or overall screen time? How?
Next, explain that students are going to share the research and their personal experiences with an adult in their life in order to get their perspective on screens.
Tell students that ideally, they will interview a parent, a guardian, or perhaps a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Ask them to try to find someone from an older generation, because they might have a different perspective on screens than a classmate or sibling would.
Review the interview work sheet with students. Note that they will write down the top three facts they want to share about screens from the mixer or from the classroom conversation – and then add a question of their own.
Once they have this side of the sheet filled out, give each student a copy of the infographic for them to share with their adult (in case some of the info didn’t make it onto the sheet accurately) and remind them that their homework is to finish the interview.
Day 2: Interview Report Back
Ask students to share their findings by asking them these three questions:
1. What surprised your adult the most about the research you shared?
2. What else did you talk about?
3. What are some key takeaways for you?
4. What changes would you like to make to the way you and your family use screens this year?
If it is appropriate for your class, consider developing a class plan for cell phone use. In my class, I shared with students my own ideas about a cell phone policy for the class, and we debated the details while I explained my rationale and connected it all to the research we had just discussed.
After the discussion, ask students to hand in their interview sheets to receive credit.
In my class, there were a few students who didn’t initially buy in to the whole idea that cell phones have negatives, but most of those had good conversations with an adult who challenged that idea. I loved reading all the resolutions about going to bed earlier and spending more time interacting face to face rather than through screens. Others were on board only until there was discussion of any hard policy on phones, at which point they protested – but eventually agreed that it might help them.
I relied heavily on sharing my own experiences of screen addiction, in order to clarify that this was not about blaming teenagers or hating what they love. It’s simply about recognizing the potential impact on our brains of a very new, very powerful technology like cell phones. Ultimately, they seemed to be on board.