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A Commitment to Balance: Pause for People

Help students, their families, and ourselves critically examine our relationship with technology.

Liz Kline | November 14, 2019

It seems like almost every day, my morning news feed greets me with at least one "think piece" from someone sharing insights on their most recent digital detox. Almost always, the authors want to use their phones less in an effort to be more focused, to be more productive, and to generally improve their mood. 

The road to digital well-being is a long one, is worth the effort, and should start early.

In my role as vice president of Common Sense Education, I am often asked to speak on the issue of media balance and students. Increasingly, the question of whether students should be allowed to have their personal devices in the classroom is lobbed my direction. My answer -- "It's complicated" -- often disappoints.

The road to digital well-being is a long one, is worth the effort, and should start early. After all, 98% of 0– to 8-year-olds live in a family with a mobile device. And although I often feel that the panic about device use is at times overblown, the concerns are grounded in some surprising statistics. It's impossible to ignore that indeed our culture is changing. 

According to Common Sense Media's research, teens age 13 to 18 spend about seven and a half hours daily on entertainment screen media (nearly 10 hours including non-screen media), and for tweens, age 8 to 12, the average screen time is nearly five hours (six hours when including non-screen media). For the adults in their lives, it isn’t much different, with parents averaging just under nine and a half hours of screen time daily for work and personal use. 

For the first time since we've been asking the question, teens told us that they value texting more than face-to-face communication with friends. Twenty-six percent of educators cite digital distraction as "frequent" or "very frequent" in their classrooms, making it one of their top concerns. And finally, most sobering of all is that 50% of teens consider themselves "addicted" to their devices

Finding balance

These new trends were surfacing at the same time the Common Sense Education team was in the process of updating our K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum. Because of the overwhelming need for resources on the topic, we reorganized the revised curriculum to put media balance as the first topic covered at every single grade, kindergarten through twelfth. 

Our guiding statement for the media balance lessons is: "We find balance in our digital lives." We intentionally wrote it in the first person plural because the challenge of achieving a healthy relationship with tech is not solved by one person making a change; it can be achieved only by all of us taking a close look at who we hope to be in school, at home, and in the world. 

It is also important to mention that the entire burden of managing media balance should not be shouldered exclusively by the people looking at the screen. The tech industry and our policymakers have a key role to play in making technology healthier for all.  

I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the media balance lessons in the curriculum, but I am going to challenge you to think of one simple change that can have a profound impact on your classroom, your students, your family, even the cashier at your neighborhood grocery store. I've come to this as an alternative to saying, "It’s complicated," since I, too, have started to find that answer unsatisfying. 

Focus on the person in front of you

The challenge I call you to is this: Pause for people. What do I mean by pause for people? I mean when you're IRL and someone is talking to you, pause what you're doing and privilege that human standing in front of you over what's on your screen. 

Just know that the simple act of briefly stopping and looking up can make all the difference.

I am no tech hater. I strongly believe that technology does help us connect with people in meaningful ways, and it should be used for powerful learning in the classroom. But even with all that potential, the face-to-face interactions you could be having, you should be having. Starting now. 

We educators have a role to play in helping our students, their families, and ourselves critically examine our relationship with tech. As part of this effort, I ask you to think about what "pause for people" looks like to you in your classroom, school, home, and community. Is it pause for friendship? Is it pause for kindness? Is it pause for creativity? Is it pause for social justice? Just know that the simple act of briefly stopping and looking up can make all the difference. You don't need to ditch your social media or revert to a flip phone; all you have to do is pause for people.

A version of this article originally appeared on the ISTE blog.