Teaching high school students has its usual challenges. Getting students to listen, teaching them how to respect others who are talking, motivating them to learn, and last but not least. . . getting them to put away their cell phone. Cell phone addiction is real and whatever form we might see it in adults you can triple or double triple its’ severity in our teens. The statistics are staggering. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at University of California, San Francisco and Larry Rosen wrote “The Distracted Mind” (2016). Rosen tracked college student phone use over two years and found that the average phone use jumped from 3 hours and 40 minutes in 2016 to 4 hours and 22 minutes in 2017.
There have also been reports of an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, bullying, and suicide in teens who show signs of excessive phone use. According to an article in the Atlantic, rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate (Twenge, 2017). The article goes on to state that we are on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades and much of this can be directly linked to our phones (Twenge, 2017). Research also suggests that there appears to be a biological component in that the brain reacts to the cell phone as if it were a drug. Not unlike the experiment of Pavlov’s dog, every time a text alert sounds the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is that “feel good” neurotransmitter that makes one feel happy and in control. Receiving a “like” on Facebook is for both teens and adults a vote of approval, acceptance, and belonging.
The unfortunate price of our love for technology could lead to an increase in alienation from each other and a disconnect from the world around us. A warning sign of this disconnect is when you try to speak to someone and they don’t look up or respond because they are too busy texting. You as a teacher may walk into the classroom and say good morning but few may respond if they are glued to their phone. Without making eye contact they might make a sad attempt to respond via some kind of primitive guttural utterance. You quickly realize that this is probably as good as it is going to get. When class begins students do not prepare for learning by pulling out their textbooks or paper and pen. Instead they lay their phones in front of them in plain sight and stare at them. . . the fact they are not turned on doesn't seem to matter. Students can't even leave their phones when giving a presentation in front of the class. While other classmates are presenting, students can be observed staring at his/her phone while waiting for their turn. It is understandable why teachers and colleges are cracking down by enforcing rules in an effort to minimize "digital distractions" in the classroom but it might be easier to find creative ways to integrate them.
Scavenger hunts using QR or AR codes is something that gets students out of their seats and engaging with content and each other. Setting up escape room experiences and critical thinking stations that require the use of their phones to solve challenges is another effective and emerging classroom activity. This can create multiple levels of engagement and co-learning experiences for diverse types of learners. There is this sudden awareness of the "other" in their group and if we dare say, a sense of collaborative purpose. The integration of tangible concrete objects combined with technology and a timer (and a few extra points doesn't hurt) motivates students to work with something real and attainable in the classroom.
The educator is always striving to promote meaningful learning that goes beyond that passive consumer who jumps from one stimuli to the next without ever experiencing meaningful and deeper engagement. Our role as learning institutions and educators should strive to nurture experiences that reconnects us with ourselves, our environment and to each other.