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Always on – post-COVID, are teens getting too much screen time?

Caroline Aldous-Goodge asks whether the COVID-19 lockdown’s many damaging consequences could include a troubling rise in device dependency among teenagers...

  • Always on – post-COVID, are teens getting too much screen time?

Students are now in almost complete control of their own learning. With many using their own phones, laptops and other devices to access online learning material set up for them by teachers or which they’ve found themselves, could we be looking at the end of the classroom as we know it? And if so, should we be concerned about the potential for them to develop screen addiction?

Before lockdown, just out of curiosity, I asked my sixth form class (who are allowed mobiles in school) to look at how much time they were spending on their phones. This is easy to monitor on iPhones, which allow users to access a straightforward ‘screen time’ indicator. The results from one class surprised me – in fact, I was a little shocked. The average time measured in the class was seven hours a day. One boy even averaged 10 hours a day that week – and this was pre-lockdown!

These were intelligent A-Level students who, apparently, ‘Watch a lot of films.’ This sheer volume of time investment concerned me, however – and when they actually thought about it, I believe it worried them, too. After all, what sort of impact could this amount of time spent on their phones have on their learning, mental health and general engagement with the outside world?

Excessive habits

According to Ofcom, “Smartphones have become the hub of our daily lives and are now in the pockets of two thirds (66%) of UK adults, up from 39% in 2016”. The vast majority (90%) of 16- to 24-year-olds own a smartphone.

Before lockdown, most of us were already using internet-connected devices throughout the day for a multitude of different purposes – communication, work, entertainment, banking, social networking, gaming. In the age of COVID-19, they’re being used even more. Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether the sheer volume of time that people – particularly younger users – spend using these devices will ultimately have a positive or negative impact on their learning, eventual exam results and general mental health.

After asking friends and colleagues to examine how much time they were spending on their phones and other devices, it soon became clear that they were often unaware of just how many hours they were committing to making use of the internet. I’d then use these realisations as prompts for discussion on what impact similar – or more excessive – use habits might have on the students we teach.

One of my colleagues felt that the internet was by and large a net positive effect for their students, in that it was allowing them to stay in touch, inspiring their creativity and connecting them with like-minded individuals and groups. Others felt that certain sites – Instagram, for one – were having a very negative impact on the mental health and self-image of both boys and girls.

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, we’ve seen for ourselves how adults and children have been required to use such devices more often than ever for the purposes of work and learning. We’re yet to see what the long-term effects of this will be, but in the short term at least, it’s required teachers and students to adapt to new forms of engagement at rapid speed. With the transition largely complete at the time of writing, these dramatic changes in learning could be with us for some time – and perhaps even come to one day be seen as everyone’s ‘normal’ way of working.

//crosshead// Freedom versus addiction
With comparatively little alternative, non-electronic entertainment available to them during lockdown, many young people have spent increasingly more time gaming and on their devices, to the point where can such habits can become addictive, or even destructive.

The perceived addictive qualities of phone use and gaming has long been an area of interest to researchers, yet not all of the resulting findings have been negative. Some studies have found that games can help facilitate a sense of autonomy, by giving players freedom of choice and sometimes, depending on the game, a meaningful narrative framework for the completion of various cognitive tasks. Well-designed games can also inspire feelings of competence in players, by presenting challenges that aren’t too hard or too easy, and which feel rewarding to overcome.

The internet, meanwhile, obviously gives our students instant access thousands of photos, videos, songs, texts and games, making it an endless source of information (both good and bad, admittedly) and as a powerful tool for learning. The latter notion has even become recognised as a distinct theoretical model of learning, connectivism, as noted by Dr John Goldie of Glasgow University Medical School in the research paper ‘Connectivism: a knowledge learning theory for the digital age?

The limits of connectivism

Connectivism holds that individuals are now able to acquire learning via a series of network connections in a way that wasn’t previously possible. What sets connectivism apart from theories such as constructivism is the idea that learning can take place outside of ourselves, through connections of specialised knowledge that people can choose for themselves and utilise in order to learn more at a faster pace.

Lockdown might have diminished our freedoms in many ways, but in one sense it has at least given students the time and space to explore their personal approaches to learning. Some teachers have embraced this, guiding and inspiring their students to take control of their own learning, and seeing their students flourish as a result of this new freedom.

But when it’s not possible to supervise students in a classroom setting, what about all those other things mobile devices can do, which aren’t related to learning? In recent years, studies have drawn linked between excess smartphone with conditions such as depression and anxiety, while the prevalence of smartphone ownership among teens and young people has raised questions regarding the possible implications for students’ academic performance. That doesn’t bode well for my sixth form class!

//crosshead// Digital divides
Another question worth asking is whether gender differences play any role in all of this. Have girls been working harder during lockdown than boys? Have boys been gaming more? Some studies have explored whether there’s any correlation between gender and rates of mobile phone addiction, but thus far the only notable difference seems to be that girls and women are more likely to use smartphones for social purposes, while men and boys tend to use theirs more for business or gaming purposes.

Of course, for connectivist learning to even be possible, the students in question will need to have access to the internet, yet a stark digital divide persists. 1.9 million households in the UK have no internet access, while many other families struggle afford data allowances charged for on a ‘pay as you go’ basis. With virtually all schools relying on online platforms to deliver their distance learning provision, it’s entirely possible that many children are being left behind.

Some schools, like the one where I’m based, have tried to provide computers so that children are able to get online – out of our own budget, I might add – but have found that families are reluctant to take them. Naturally, lending out computers only addresses one part of the problem – internet access will still need to be set up and paid for, and some families may lack the computer literacy required to make proper use of the hardware.

The longer lockdown goes on, the bigger we can expect the gaps in students’ learning to become – and, as ever, the likelihood is that those with time and money will come out on top. We know all too well how some students have really suffered during lockdown, and are aware of others who have thrived.

The intensive use of internet-connected devices by teenagers and young people poses certain risks and potential harms, but embracing the possibilities presented by connectivism can help us tackle the learning disruption posed by COVID-19 in a practical and effective way.

At the same time, though, we ought to be mindful that poorer students shouldn’t miss out, and suffer the most through lack of access to the technology needed for connectivist approaches to even be possible in the first instance.

Caroline Aldous-Goodge is art and design teacher, head of year and education researcher

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