When I first considered the question of whether the use of technology is making our youth unhealthy, I had pretty much made up my mind on the issue. I grew up in Mali, West Africa and as such was in a continuous technology lag zone. Living in a developing country meant that even land line phone connections were spotty at best, there was no internet until 1998 or so and cell phones were non-existent in rural areas until about 10 years ago. I grew up climbing trees to pick mangoes, hunting lizards and birds with a slingshot, or riding my bike on the goat paths that stretched for miles around our village. I loved growing up in Africa and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have a bit of a different worldview when it comes to technology and that is that simpler is sometimes better. But wait…isn’t technology supposed to simplify my life thereby making my life easier and stress free? The issue of whether technology is making us unhealthy is one in which there are many factors to consider. Not the least of which are the inherent problems with some of the studies and reports that have been released in recent years on both sides of this argument.
On the one hand, I feel like one day I’m going to wake up and realize that North American society has gone the way of the humans in Wall-E. Studies have conclusively shown that obesity rates in North America are on a steady incline and that this is due in large part to diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Some students are spending more time in front of screens at home than hours in the school day. I usually ask my Grade 7 students during our digital citizenship and health unit how many hours they spend in front of screens on average per day. When I first started teaching, it was usually around 2-3 on a school day. Now the average is around 6-8 hours. Aside form the risk of obesity due to lack of exercise, there is also the risk of sleep loss. For students who are still developing and in need of at least 9-10 hours of sleep a night, the devices and screens in their bedrooms mean that many of them do not get to sleep on a weeknight until around midnight or later. We then expect these students to arrive at school and begin functioning at full capacity on their school work. In addition, the physical activity that students are engaged in at school is nowhere near the 1 hour a day minimum necessary. Not to mention, the social and emotional toll of the barrage of bullying, slandering and trolling that students endure on their online profiles.
On the other hand, is it prudent to simply pull all technology out of the hands of our youth? After all, there exist numerous benefits to the use of technology in the lives of students. Apps like snapchat, instagram, and skype allow students to stay connected and socialize. Fitness and sleep tracking apps like fitbit allow students to get exercise and track their progress. Not only can technology provide entertainment, it also allows for amazing creativity. Youth are doing things with technology that at one time used to be reserved for computer science engineers. There are numerous safety benefits, to tech use as well as from GPS tracking and mapping systems, to home security. There is certainly also the question of technology playing a key role in all our students’ futures. If we simply try to cut out technology, we may be sabotaging the futures of our students. It is simply a part of life in the 21st century and students need to have these skills in order to succeed in this world. As described in this NPR Podcast, screens are simply another step in the long line of tools that have affected and changed our lives over the years. But at what cost? In a 2014 study described below, students displayed difficulty when asked to identify facial emotions and non-verbal cues after usual amounts of media use. Those that were removed from devices scored much higher. This is ironic because the thing that most youth spend their time on using devices is socializing. Could it be that our youth are losing the ability to have face-to-face interactions and if so, what does this mean for the future?
I believe the key with this issue as in many issues of technology is an approach of moderation. Kids need to experience skinned knees, scrapes and inventing a new version of hide and seek. They need to observe conflict, use problem solving skills, and learn to cooperate. They need to recognize when someone is hurt, feel the pang of empathy in their chest and ask what they can do to help. They need to get a sunburn, get soaked from running through the rain, plant a garden. Many teachers and parents will immediately identify the difficulty in motivating teens and younger children to unplug and engage in other activities. This can be daunting but it has to be all about balance. Recently a school in Stockholm, Sk created an outdoor classroom to promote learning outdoors. Students and teachers attest to the growth in natural and authentic learning experiences. Schools can play a significant role in promoting healthy learning and lifestyles. How can individual teachers and parents play a similar role?
Here are 10 tips for a balanced approach to tech use so everyone stays healthy.
- Discuss tech use openly with students (children).
- Model appropriate balance of tech use (give children your full attention).
- Get outdoors (exercise together as a class or as a family).
- Support your child’s social life online and offline.
- Support the child’s interests whether these are online or offline.
- Teach meta-cognition and emotional self-awareness.
- Prioritize offline connections.
- Make quality time together without devices.
- Watch for trouble such as online bullying and intervene if necessary.
- Set limits on screen time if necessary and follow them as well.