Combatting distraction and dependency - Education Matters Magazine
Expert Contributors, Health and Wellness

Combatting distraction and dependency

Psychologist and cyberpsychology researcher, Jocelyn Brewer, discusses the need for schools and parents to work together to build young people’s digital citizenship skills.

When I was in high school, I was a chronic note-passer and letter-writer. Behind the teacher’s back there was a flurry of communication happening under desks, and sometimes between classrooms thanks to well co-ordinated toilet pass requests.

Fast-forward nearly three decades and the same desire to connect and communicate (and the propensity to be distracted) still pervades classrooms, but the method is phenomenally different. Young people are more likely to have two digital devices with them than they are to have two pens, with many secondary school students carrying both a BYOD (bring your own device) along with a smartphone as part of their normal school day.

The access to, and impacts of, technology use by young people is a pressing concern for school leaders, teachers and parents alike. There are vast complexities and variables when it comes to fully understanding the risks and benefits of technology in both leisure and learning.

It is only relatively recently that the mainstream conversation is moving to better preparing young people with the skills required to be safe, savvy and responsible participants in the online space, rather than handing out devices without consideration for these largely human skills and expecting that young people would develop them spontaneously. This begs the question of not only identifying exactly what these skills are and how to effectively teach them, but also whose job is it to teach them anyway?

The difficulty in answering these questions arises when we see young people’s use of technology in binary terms – smartphones for non-educational activities, the ‘fun’, compelling, distracting and, in many adult’s eyes, inconsequential unnecessary activities young people regularly engage in; versus laptops, which are sometimes thought of as purely learning tools devoid of the distraction and dependency lures, protected with firewalls and monitoring software.

Smartphones are largely demonised in both classrooms and beyond. They’re the fall-guy for the ills apparently plaguing modern teenagers – from a fall in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings to the alarming suicide rate.

Yet they’re the must-have accessory in a modern age, where ‘keeping up with the iPhoneses’ is an important part of adolescent (and increasingly pre-adolescent) identity formation, belonging and social capital. Participating in online spaces like gaming and social media is like a contemporary skate park or the town hall steps, where young people congregate, connect and share – and their ability to participate in these social spaces and virtually meet their peers (augmenting face-to-face experiences) has been shown to actually support young people’s wellbeing.

There is also the conflict between how schools manage technology use with behaviour management principles, engaging pedagogy and upskilling with digital citizenship education, and how parents choose to mediate and monitor their family’s device use.

While some schools might champion strictly enforced smartphone bans, this might have little impact on a student’s wellbeing if they go home to an environment with no guidelines around screen-based media use, study routines or bedtime. For both parties we’re in new territory when it comes to rescuing young people’s attention from the glow of their handheld devices, stemming the viral transmission of misinformation and reducing the potential for online maleficence.

Digital citizenship skills-training is not part of a mandatory curriculum in Australia. Telcos or technology companies don’t offer skills training with a new device (in the same way no car company teaches a new owner how to drive). The task of preparing young people with not just the technical skills but also the social-emotional and critical thinking skills to be an effective online citizen falls to both parents and schools – in not only what they teach but how these skills are role-modelled to young people in daily life. From texting while driving, to mindlessly scrolling social media at the supermarket checkout – young people are constantly learning from the cues we send them in our actions.

While digital citizenship skills show up in aspects of the PDHPE (Personal Development, Health and Physical Education) syllabus, the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) general capability, the personal and social capability and in teaching standards 1, 3, 4 and 6, it’s up to schools to decide how they prepare their students for life in the digital economy, where attention capital is a key resource.

It’s also at the school’s discretion as to how they collaborate with parents to create partnerships to empower families to have an ongoing and active role in tackling technology use issues – from sexting and selfies to video game addiction and the impacts of screen-time on sleep.

Increasingly this needs to move beyond the annual guest speaker at parent evenings to a more embedded (that is more regular and relevant), accessible (for example for families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds) and flexible (such as for those who can’t attend face to face sessions) model for reaching out to parents and helping them feel proactively supported and empowered to understand the rapidly changing, constantly growing, highly compelling digital landscape.

Breaking down the stigma around needing support to parent a ‘screenager’ is also vital. While we spend lots of time and energy educating parents in the perinatal period, many parents of tweens and teens feel a sense of failure for needing support to build their skills in this stage of parenting. Schools can partner with experienced, reputable organisations who offer ongoing resources, updated training and holistic education programs that address the concerns and confusion parents have in managing their kids online. The aim should be to empower rather than shame parents around their digital parenting choices and habits and use fear-free, evidence backed strategies to help shape our relationship with technology positively.

When school leaders and parents look beyond some of the morally panicked headlines about teens and screens and talk to young people about online experiences, we can start to more meaningfully and powerfully shape the programs that support them in the digital playground that is a hallmark of their generation.

Jocelyn Brewer is a registered psychologist and accredited teacher with a passion for dispelling myths around cyberpsychology and the impacts of technology. She is the founder of Digital Nutrition which offers a range of digital wellbeing and cyber education services, from parent and student presentations, whole-school consultation projects to individual and family therapy around technology use, overuse and abuse.

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