Teachers and parents are at odds when it comes to how much they think digital devices are affecting children’s mental and physical health, according to new research by Gallup.
When asked, “Do you believe that students’ use of digital devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers has helpful or harmful effects” in the area of mental health, 69 percent of teachers said digital devices have been “mostly harmful.” Fifty-five percent of teachers think the devices have a “mostly harmful” effect on students’ physical health as well.
Parents, meanwhile, have a much rosier view. Asked: “All things considered, do you believe your child’s use of digital devices including smartphones, tablets and computers is more helpful or harmful” to their mental health, 69 percent of the 1,000 parents of kids aged 2 to 18 said devices are “more helpful,” while 59 percent said devices are “more helpful” when it comes to their kids’ physical health.
Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director of education and workforce development, said he was “quite frankly, shocked about the big gap.”
Considering how much time children spend with their teachers (and how many children teachers oversee), “if teachers are really negative about digital devices, it gives me pause,” said Busteed, father to a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old.
Michelle Harmon, a seventh-grade English teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools and mother to a 13-year-old boy, a 9-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, understands both perspectives. “As a parent who happens to be a teacher, you have a different view than when you’re strictly a parent and not seeing the whole picture and how your child might be behaving in a classroom,” she said. “It’s definitely impacted my parenting decisions.”
Just in the past week, her son got his own phone. He previously signed a contract with his parents about device usage, and he’s not allowed to have any social media yet. “That was not only a decision made based on what I’ve seen at school, but also what I’ve seen as an adult,” said Harmon, who has been teaching for 20 years. Social media “makes you feel bad about yourself sometimes. … As an adult I find it happens to me, and I have a fully developed brain. I can’t even imagine what this does to an adolescent.”
In the classroom, she sees a lot more anxiety than she did before smartphones and tablets were so ubiquitous. The “constant bombardment of news from Twitter, Instagram, texts, information, ideas — that’s a lot for developing brains to process,” she said.
But perhaps the biggest change she sees in her students is how much trouble they have thinking through problems. “Everything is so instantaneous to kids, and they expect answers to questions right away,” she said. “There’s a downside in that it doesn’t help our kids wrestle with the gray area or complexity.”
That might be why the Gallup survey, answered by almost 500 teachers, also found just 41 percent of teachers found digital devices to be very helpful to education. “It wasn’t as big a percentage as a I thought,” Busteed said. “If teachers aren’t seeing unbelievable benefits … is this an issue of we’re not using devices properly?”
Jennifer Goodstein, a sixth-grade science teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools and mother to an eighth-grader and a sixth-grader, said that — like anything — in moderation, devices can be beneficial and can add something to education. “However, that being said, I don’t see them being used moderately.”
Instead, she says she sees many students pulled into the devices as an escape, not getting outside, getting exercise, learning to think deeply.
“I think it’s affected their ability to think, to reason, to have a higher order of thinking,” she said. When she considers when she started teaching 28 years ago vs. now, students’ “ability to sit down and take the time they need to think out a problem has drastically changed. And I think a lot of that has to do with digital technology.”
Devorah Heitner, founder of Raising Digital Natives and author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in their Digital World,” said it’s not all dire, but the research can remind us that teachers “have a bigger data set” and parents should talk to them when it comes to devices. “All teachers I talk to wish parents would do more to monitor their kids on technology,” she said. “Many teachers, even of young kids, are stunned by what kids are exposed to.”
So what can parents do? For one thing, remember you are the parent. Sometimes Goodstein is asked by parents how to monitor their kids’ device usage. She tells them to unplug the computer or take away the device for a time. Some say they can’t do it or don’t know how. Goodstein herself has rules at home, including no devices at dinner. Instead, her family takes turns talking about what they learned that day. Now her son reminds her if they don’t make that their discussion at dinner. And her daughter has actually asked to have her device shut down for a while to force her into a break. “I’m not perfect by any means, and sometimes I think I give better advice as a teacher,” she said. “But I do think I see the red flags quickly.”
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