Navigating Children and Teens’ Ongoing Reliance on Technology
A digital wellness expert shares ways schools can reduce technology-dependent behaviors to help ensure children and teens remain safe online.
The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.
Technology has become embedded in virtually every part of our society and is progressively becoming the most prominent feature of our education system. The trend of children increasingly relying on technology (both in the classroom and at home) is not new, having begun well before the global pandemic. But, the move to remote learning and the drastic reduction in face-to-face interactions certainly guided us into this current position — where learning and socializing are nearly impossible for children to engage in without access to the online world.
As we consider the implications of this reality, it’s incredibly important that we remember the Internet was not created with children in mind. It was designed to be vast, to provide us with limitless opportunities to access information, and to make connecting with others incredibly easy. In other words, it has little-to-no built-in boundaries in place, something all children require for their healthy development. Most of today’s digital landscape lacks internal stop signs that help with measured use, and the ease with which we can connect to other Internet users means children are often just a click away from complete strangers.
Given these serious challenges facing today’s generation of digital natives (and their parents), how can we all work together to ensure children and teens are well-equipped to use the technology they rely on responsibly and safely, and what can we do to help promote healthy tech habits?
The Impact of the Pandemic
While the debate around children spending excessive time on their devices has been bubbling for years, the pandemic brought it to a boiling point with the complete collapse of most rules and routines that families may have had pre-COVID. Parents became concerned about basic needs like keeping their children healthy and keeping their jobs secure, attempting to juggle too many obstacles at once: adjusting to remote school and work; remaining updated on the latest news and safety precautions; and stocking up on food and other household essentials that were selling out of stores. Many parents were, understandably, thinking less about how much time their children were spending online, and more about how they’ll make it through one of the greatest crises the world has ever seen.
In addition to the disruption of any existing screen-time routines at home, the necessity for remote learning introduced an additional demand for technology use during school hours. While high schoolers were already somewhat accustomed to using the Internet for assignments pre-pandemic, for elementary schoolers (and kindergarteners), the abrupt transition to online schooling was an incredibly difficult one. Like a fish out of water, young children found it a near-impossible task to spend all day “learning” by staring at a screen for hours at a time.
In spite of so many amazing teachers’ creative efforts during this period, the fact remained that the majority of a young child’s learning experience needs to happen in person while they are interacting with others in a classroom environment; the move to “Zoom school” ultimately resulted in lots of unnecessary tension at home — and a staggering amount of learning loss — across all age groups.
None of this is to say that technology is “bad,” or to discredit just how vital a lifeline it was for most of us. What pandemic-era technology use has shown us, though, is that there are better and worse ways of applying it, and there are problems technology cannot fully solve. When applied effectively, students can use technology to learn about the world around them and gain perspective, practice using incredible tools like 3D printers, watch educational videos that teach all kinds of skills, conduct in-depth research, and more. Technology can certainly supplement the needs of students in some incredible ways, and bridge gaps in ways we didn’t even think possible only a few years ago. But, using it to entirely replace certain needs — that will never work.
Effects on Physical and Mental Health
Unsurprisingly, the time that young people spend with technology can have a significant impact on both their physical and mental health. It’s important to keep in mind that much of this isn’t simply down to the amount of time spent online, but to what exactly is being done online, too.
When it comes to their physical health, the World Health Organization cautions that the time children spend online can potentially lead to obesity, resulting from the sedentary use of technology, the disruption of sleeping patterns, and the tendency to excessively consume food while watching television or playing games, for example. As human beings, our bodies have been built to move – and this is especially important for children, whose young brains can’t develop properly without having their bodies stay active. This neuroscientific fact should always serve as a reminder of just how important it is to prioritize children’s physical activity.
Children’s brain development not only demands lots of physical activity but plenty of rest too, and this is one brain function that we know technology use frequently disrupts, especially for teenagers. Keeping devices out of children’s bedrooms at night is vitally important, for this reason. On an even more fundamental level, the use of technology has also been shown to disrupt our breathing patterns, through a phenomenon known as phone or email apnea. The constant stream of alerts and other kinds of digital stimuli we all face has been shown to cause some people – including children and teens – to hold their breath as a reflex, in anticipation of receiving new pieces of information. This constant stream of notifications can create issues through elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels (stress hormones), leading to heightened feelings of stress and anxiety.
While it has not been proven that technology causes mental illness, it can certainly make existing mental health issues worse, and we’ve seen how this process can unfold thanks to recent revelations brought on by leaked research studies conducted at Meta (formerly Facebook) and Instagram. For example, if a child demonstrates signs of anxiety or depression offline, they may be drawn to certain types of people, groups or content online, which social media platforms (through the use of algorithms) will push on them even more, for the purpose of increasing their engagement and time spent on that particular platform. Furthermore, research has shown that the more time a child spends online, the greater the risk that they will be exposed to incidents of cyberbullying (whether as perpetrators or victims).
The Role of School Districts in Managing Tech Habits
School officials, teachers, and senior district leaders must be mindful of their own role in helping children and teens develop healthy digital habits and manage their time spent online. The most effective solutions combine building policies and procedures to place healthy limits on technology use, while also educating parents and students on best practices when it comes to safe, responsible, and positive digital citizenship. In fact, it’s of the utmost importance for students to learn how to manage technology use on their own so they can independently make smart digital decisions. This empowers them to build long-lasting healthy habits, and have a positive influence on other users online.
At the same time, school leaders can look to implement technological solutions to help ensure children and teens remain safe online, including tools that limit access to inappropriate or harmful content, and those that help students remain focused and on-task while they’re in class. However, these solutions should not be implemented in a vacuum; it’s critical for parents to be involved in school districts’ decision-making processes whenever new technologies are implemented. To be successful, school leaders must work closely with parents to educate them on online safety and digital wellness topics. Even the most effective interventions won’t work if all sides don’t participate.
Finally, this must be a continuous topic for discussion; it’s not enough for it to be brought up once per term, and then forgotten about.
Resilience in Children and Teens
While the heavy reliance on technology by both children and adults has and will continue to impact society in fundamental ways, only time will tell its long-term psychological, social, political and economic effects.
We know that children and teens’ ability to control their impulses is not yet fully developed until they reach the age of about 25, and one could argue that today’s students are especially vulnerable because, from an early age, they are exposed to highly sophisticated, personalized and persuasive technology, designed to increase their engagement to the maximum. At the same time, we know that young people are very much aware of the fact that technology can be dangerous, potentially addictive, and that it can violate their right to privacy. Many have already begun to set boundaries for themselves to ensure their use does not negatively impact their goals, values, relationships, and well-being.
This should give us hope and the assurance that despite the many risks and challenges young people today face in their tech-entangled lives, with some support from us, they absolutely can overcome these obstacles and build up the skills of resilience, positive digital citizenship, and empathy for others — both on and offline.
Teodora Pavkovic is a psychologist, parenting coach, and digital wellness expert.
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