As if teaching a room full of teenagers at the peak of their hormone production and social-emotional development wasn’t difficult enough when the most distracting form of inter-student communication happened via passing notes, it has become a truly unenviable task in the advent of the smart phone era.
The proliferation of cell phones in school has skyrocketed just in the past few years. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of teens aged 13-17 have or have access to a smartphone, 92 percent of teens use the internet via a mobile device daily and teenagers send between 30 and 40 texts a day, on average.
Lively debate continues about how teachers are supposed to deal with the added distractions of students having access to such powerful communication tools throughout the school day and whether or not the benefits of the technology outweighs the drawbacks. At the same time there are developmental concerns, as adolescent minds are being exposed to more adult responsibilities and consequences earlier, and more, than ever before.
A growing issue, for better or worse
Factually, trends show that technology is rapidly becoming a vital part of educational curriculums, at least in districts that can afford the expense. In Warwick, students are actually required to have access to a device that can connect to the schools’ wireless network, whether they utilize free Chromebooks available to grades 6-12 or take advantage of the “bring your own device” program that was enacted in 2014.
Whitney Blankenship, an associate professor of education studies at Rhode Island College who spent 17 years as a public school teacher in Texas, said that the use of technology in classrooms has multiple, tangible benefits for students and teachers.
She talked about teachers utilizing various programs – like Google Classroom – that foster an educational environment akin to a social media page and promote more active discussion. Other programs allow students to submit answers and their opinions anonymously, helping them overcome anxiety over speaking up in class and being rebuked by other students, or a fear of being corrected publicly by a teacher.
It's a way for them to be able to contribute without that pressure,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship said that teaching the proper use of technology in school is essential, as students must learn to become good “digital citizens.” Essentially, this boils down to teaching more media literacy, as students are naturally inclined to simply believe what they read on the internet as factual. Making students more aware of technology by directly learning with it in the classroom is a good thing, she said.
Of course, there are also problems that accompany having supercomputers with ready access to social media in the pockets of easily-distracted teens, whom Blankenship said have between a 15-20 minute active attention span when listening to a lecture from a teacher.
“There are always classroom disruptions of one kind or another, but the obsession the kids have with their cell phones supersedes anything that has come before, as far as distractions go,” said Darlene Netcoh, currently an English teacher at Toll Gate High School entering her 30th year in education.
Not since school administrators have been concerned with students orchestrating drug deals via pagers has there been a magical solution for getting kids to stop using technology whilst in school. Warwick public schools have a very clear policy on phone during school hours: you can use them when a teacher says that you can, but only for an educational purpose that is clearly defined.
Another part of the policy is crystal clear. If you go off the grid and use it for a non-educational purpose, you have no right to maintain possession of your device. It can be taken and locked away until it may be retrieved at the end of the day, and sometimes only by a parent if the student did something more nefarious.
However, the sheer scope of enforcing this policy means that students usually don’t get grief for having their cell phones out while not in a classroom setting unless they are causing an active disruption, such as talking loudly, listening to music or gathering a crowd around the device. Netcoh said that easing enforcement of cell phone use in the hallways, at least anecdotally in her experience at Toll Gate, was essentially a matter of necessary concession in the smartphone era.
Now every kid has one,” she said.
There do exist “solutions” to the distraction problem caused by cell phones in class, but these have not been enacted district-wide in Warwick.
Some teachers have found success using hanging shoe holders on the back of classroom doors, with transparent plastic pockets that hold each students device while allowing them to maintain visibility with it so they aren’t worrying about it being stolen. Students must place their devices in the pockets at the beginning of class, and can only retrieve them for educational purposes or once class concludes.
Blankenship said that colleagues have had success simply letting the students have their devices out on the desk, but face down, and that it somehow eases their compulsive need to check the device such as when it is in their pocket or zipped away in a backpack or purse.
Overall, has technological advances made educating more difficult?
“It's always been difficult,” Blankenship said. “We’re not just teaching content, we’re teaching emotional and social skills and how to get along and work with groups. We’re also social workers in a lot of ways...there is a lot of stuff over and above the content angle, and we have to be aware of them because they affect what is going on in your classroom.”
Adjusting to the change
Brian Lucier is a clinical psychologist and a practicing partner at the Center for Psychological Wellness, located on Toll Gate Road in Warwick. He said that, in five years so far of his practice, he interacts every day with at least one case of a parent having behavioral issues with their child because of technology.
“I’m not here to suggest that we’ve got to do away with this stuff,” he said. “I think that train has left the station and we have to embrace it because a lot of it is wonderful. However I don’t think we knew enough soon enough about handing this stuff off to children.”
Lucier said that parents need to take a leading role in how to manage access to the technology, making it a reward to be earned instead of a right that they lose access to for misbehavior. Equally important, parents must educate themselves about the potential implications of giving technology to their children in the first place.
“Many parents find out the hard way that their kids know how to access things they thought they had locked them out of,” he said. “Unfortunately when something goes wrong with these technologies things can go very wrong.”
Lucier mentioned that about once a month he has a case involving a parent and child who are dealing with a situation caused by technology in school that resulted in a legal ramification, whether it is an instance of sexting, cyber bullying or something else, and whether it’s the perpetrator of such an action or the victim.
“You used to make your mistakes during development and growing up, and that was part of it. Today, growing up, some mistakes because of these technologies might prove irreparable,” he said. “You can’t hope for time to diminish the memory, because there’s no such thing anymore with the internet. It’s there forever.”
Lucier said that, to kids, interacting in their digital lives is just as important – and sometimes more important – as interacting in their real lives. He believes this may be why students in particular have such a fiery and sometimes uncharacteristic reaction to having a device taken away, or being threatened by its confiscation, while in school.
“They very much feel that the circumstances surrounding having it taken away were entirely unreasonable. They never just accept that it's a policy and that the teacher has that right. They seem to fight for it as if it’s something very, very important to fight for,” he said. “It’s an extension of themselves that they feel has been taken away.”
Research has shown that technology use in adolescents triggers similar brain reactions to the use of various drugs in addicts. Other research shows that anxiety in young children and adolescents is skyrocketing amongst newer generations. The correlation between these facts and cell phone/social media proliferation are readily apparent, but not yet wholly, scientifically proven.
At any rate, psychologists like Lucier assert that striking a healthy balance between the real world and the virtual world is a necessary part of development for modern adolescents and teenagers.
“I say to [adolescents and teens], I don’t want you to lose these technologies, but a healthy self has a responsibility to develop a healthy psychological self, emotional self; one with our friends, family and extended world beyond that,” he said. “And if we narrow that experience to an online world only, we clearly haven’t developed a transferable, generalizable skillset for when you step out into the real world.”