The Screen Wars

“What phone?”

In one of my early teaching experiences, a middle school girl (let’s call her Danielle) was looking down during a lesson, a slight blue hue reflecting up at her face. I cringed…this has become an all-too-familiar interruption in the 21st century school. I was faced with a decision, “Do I let this go for the sake of trudging on with the lesson?” or “Do I crack down on this student and make an example of this behavior?” For better or worse, I chose the latter. I gave Danielle the option of handing me the phone for the rest of the school day or getting a detention. She took the detention.

I called home and told Danielle’s mom that she had detention after school that day because she used her phone during class.


“What phone?”- her mom responded to me.

It turns out that the girl bought a friend’s old phone in order to talk to guys online…without her parents even knowing. I accidentally peered into the world of teenage smart phone usage, a space that is filled with lots of connection, entertainment, distraction, and more critically, lack of supervision.

Sure, this particular example is a little extreme, but I have a bevy of other student smart phone cautionary tales, mainly accrued from several years teaching in urban schools. Some of these include: Snapchat and Instagram fight threats, anonymous Twitter accounts set up by star students to ethnically intimidate others, porn accidentally played in front of a guest speaker, and the student who put inappropriate videos of another student on Facebook .

More banal are the everyday examples of student screen addiction: the students desperately checking their phones at every spare moment during class or during class breaks, the obsession with using smart phones for academic tasks rather than thinking for themselves, the bathroom breaks to check their phones, hours spent on mindless iPad games, and the lack of sleep due to being up half the night watching YouTube videos.

Yes, technology is a powerful and useful tool. You don’t have to argue with me that the internet, phones, and computers are powerful tools in education…but only if they are balanced with other quality and proven pedagogical methods.

That’s the key: balance.

However, I and millions of teachers like me fight students all day for attention and for compliance away from their hidden-in-plain-sight addiction. This causes stress and tension between teacher and student, especially in schools that do not seriously address the problem at hand. The blunt reality is that, for an increasing amount of kids, time away from their devices is physically painful. This is a particularly frightening phenomenon in schools where parents have less guidance in their kids lives: our most vulnerable urban and underserved schools.

For students, teachers, and schools, the screen wars have taken their toll. Many schools have no idea how to meet this problem head-on. Many teachers simply give up on the fight.

Harms of Technology Addiction

In a high school that had a particular problem with cell phone distraction, I conducted an informal survey of my students about their habits.

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Despite being conducted on a very small scale in one school setting, these findings were troubling to me.

4 or more hours PER DAY on social media…kids get home around 3-4 pm. Does this mean that my students spend a large majority of their free time perusing social media? The fact that a majority of my students felt that they spent too much time on their phone made me think: who is helping them to deal with that problem? Who even acknowledges that this is a problem?

So, is the data of my own personal teaching experience generalizable to the public at large? Common Sense Media released a comprehensive, nationwide study in which they studied the tech habits of 2,600 young people (the full report can be found here). What did they find?

The results are extreme: American tweens (ages 8-12) average 5 hours and 55 minutes of entertainment media per day. American teenagers average 8 hours and 56 minutes. A key point: this entertainment media usage EXCLUDES time spent in school and for homework.

The averages don’t tell the full story: while just 6% of tweens don’t use screen media at all in their free time, 27% spend between 4 and 8 hours of time on screen media, and 11% use it for more than 8 hours per day. As for teens, 6% don’t use screen media at all in their free time, 31% spend between 4 and 8 hours of time on screen media, and a full 26% of teens spend more than 8 hours per day on screen media.

The findings are clear: there are approximately 11% of tweens and 26% of teens who use almost every waking moment of their free time on screen technology.

It is not just my students: young people nationwide are susceptible to the constant allure of the blue screen.

Digital Natives

So what?

I can hear the shouts from the army of (well-funded) tech consultants and ed tech corporations reading the first half of my post. They would respond with some jabs about all the tech jobs that are opening up in the 21st century, and that young kids are wired today to learn differently than you and I did. We adults just don’t understand- “adapt or die.”

The problem with this mentality is that the reality does not match the tech utopia: Common Sense Media found that just 3% of tweens’ and teens’ time on entertainment media involves content creation. Tweens and teens are largely using screen technology to rot on social media or mindlessly watch shows.

Sure, school should push students to have power over their technology by learning to code, create videos, and create digital art. The problem, however, is that many schools choose to use screen technology as a direct (and more costly) substitute for already effective pedagogical methods, and they intend to reduce teacher-to-student contact.

Take Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona. According to their own website, Carpe Diem employs a model of schools where students sit in cubicles all day and complete school work on computers (with the occasional rotation of real teaching to supplement the online masters). I can see the corporate education reform leaders licking their chops, just thinking about eliminating teaching jobs (and thus labor costs).

Take a look for yourself. Is this a school you want your child going to?

Although most schools do not go to the hardcore lengths of Carpe Diem, many schools are pumping millions and millions of dollars into flashy new devices and software that they have no effective plan to implement. Just look at Los Angeles Public Schools’ failed $1.3 billion iPad initiative. Even more isolated away from human interaction, more and more young students go to online school at home. As of 2013, some 315,000 k-12 students enrolled full-time in online public schools. Furthermore, as of 2013, 275,000 k-12 students enrolled full-time in cyber charter schools.

On the other hand, some Silicon Valley executives send their children to technology-free Waldorf Schools . These are private schools, of course; they emphasize human interaction, engaging lessons, and teacher-student connection at the early levels of education. These same tech executives who sell tech products to kids make sure their own kids grow up without screen dependence.

What is this doing to our kids?

For one thing, there is a significant mental health crisis among teens in the United States, and it is clear that smart phones and social media play a large role.

After decades of decline, a record number of teenagers died by suicide from 2010-2015. What changed in teenagers lives from that time? Researchers led by Dr. Jean Twenge, relying on data from the CDC and many other findings, found that 48% of teenagers who spent more than five hours on their phones per day have depression, think about suicide, or die by suicide. This was a far higher number than students that had under two hours per day on their phones.

This alone merits intervention by parents, schools, and the government.

Kids who spend way too much time on their devices lose out on in-person social interaction, exercise, family time, hobbies, and being outside in nature. In addition, from talking to my students, I often find that the sleepy students in class were on their phone and “lost track of time” and suddenly it was 3 a.m. Young people, with their raging hormones and instant gratification mindset, are ripe for late-night binges of YouTube, Netflix, and far more inappropriate content.

It’s not just me being a hater- two major Apple investors who own $2 billion in Apple stock released a letter saying that iPhones were a public health crisis for young frequent users and that this warrants significant action from Apple.

The kids who are most vulnerable to screen addiction are our society’s most vulnerable; African American teens average almost three hours more of digital media time per day when compared to White teens [1]. Children of the wealthy have seventeen times the amount of adult interaction when using technology as poor kids do, so poorer youths spend their time on technology unsupervised and unregulated [2]. It is clear that there is a “tech addiction” gap among children, and disadvantaged students require society’s intervention most.

What to Do About All This

If you are reading this blog and think I hate technology, then I have missed my mark. I love technology. Heck, I am spending way too much of my free time writing on this blog! I often use some level of technology in my lessons, and students have created some really awesome projects on iPads and computers in the past. However, it is clear that there needs to be action taken in order to help balance students’ usage of technology. 9 hours a day at home plus 7 hours a day at school on a screen is not going to cut it.

Here are a few of my “solutions”:

1. Teachers: use technology when it helps, don’t use it when it doesn’t

This may sound simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I have personally used technology in a lesson that has ultimately hindered my lesson or distracted from the learning objectives. Selectively use technology in order to help students learn valuable lessons, but shy away from using technology as a lazy crutch or a shiny attention-getter. The reality is that widely-used technology products are made to be intuitive. You would be far better served by focusing on critical thinking skills and problem solving, with or without technology. Examples of great technology in the classroom include teaching coding, media production, and teaching media literacy (fake news from real news). These should be balanced with activities that push students to communicate with one another and engage with learning in a hands-on way. Oh, and do not be soft on your “no cell phones” policy. Continue fighting the screen wars when you need to lay down the law.

2. Parents: monitor your kids’ technology

In a survey to my high school students, just over half said their parents would be horrified if they knew what they were doing online. Yeah…parents, you probably want to know what that means. If your kids are young, restrict their technology usage to a minimum. If they are teens, monitor what they are doing closely and make sure that your kids aren’t always replacing activities and social experiences with mindless screen time. If they are spending hours and hours per day on their phones, this could also correlate with depression-related symptoms. Also, maybe keep the phone out of the hands of the student when they go to bed.

3. Government: study the problem and take necessary action

The CDC should directly study social media and smartphone usage among young people and take any necessary precautions to help decrease screen dependence. How young is too young for smart phones or social media? What lengths need to be taken to keep tech companies accountable for their products? We need a government to protect our kids, in particular low-income and minority youths.

4. Schools: Be skeptical of the flashy, shiny new gimmick 

Schools should focus on doing what is best for kids, and that includes providing for students’ mental health well-being and academic focus. Schools should take a hard look at banning cell phones from classes, and elementary teachers should be very careful of how much screen-time they are allowing for their students. In grades 6-12, schools should be careful of not over-loading tweens and teens with screen-time because that’s exactly what they will do when they get home.While we’re at it, bring back recess, music, real world excursions, and art. Finally, Mental health services should not just be a reactionary after-thought for students in direct crisis; schools should provide direct help for students and promote positive mental health through programs such as this one through the University of Michigan Depression Center. This mental health prevention should acknowledge the link between mental health crises and screen addiction. Thus, schools need to engage students, but they also need to mitigate against digital extremes.


[1] Clement, Joe and Miles, Matt. Screen Schooled. Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2018. Pp. 173.

[2] Ibid, pp 173.

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