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What Educators Need to Know About Technology Addiction

Common Sense examines the latest scientific research about problematic media use in our new report.

Michael Robb | May 3, 2016

A typical teen's day includes up to nine hours of texting, gaming, watching videos, and posting on multiple social networks -- even while doing homework. It's enough to make you wonder: Are my students addicted to technology?

Look around, and it's easy to see how media and technology have changed our day-to-day lives, even compared to a decade ago. We bring our devices with us everywhere and depend on them for work, school, play, and our social lives. But what are the downsides to this "always connected" lifestyle -- especially for kids?

To find answers to these questions -- and, more importantly, to help support a healthy digital lifestyle -- Common Sense examines the latest scientific research about problematic media use in our new report, Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance. Along with the report, we're releasing the results of a poll, Dealing with Devices: The Parent-Teen Dynamic, which asks teens and parents how they feel about the technology in their lives. Educators can use the poll as a springboard to talk with parents and students about the role media and technology play in their lives.

What we determined is that problematic media use is a growing issue, but true technology addiction -- while associated with very serious repercussions -- may be a real risk for only a vulnerable few. The report reveals large gaps in research on technology addiction. For example, when does problematic media use become harmful? And if people aren't actually addicted, what's going on -- and how can parents help? Much of the existing research was conducted with college students and adults, not specifically with children. To understand how media use affects kids as they grow, we need much better research. Here's what we know now:

Below are some highlights from the poll:

  • Half of teens and over one-quarter of parents feel they're addicted to their mobile devices.
  • At least a few times a week, more than three-quarters of parents and 41 percent of teens feel the other gets distracted by a device and doesn't pay attention when they're trying to talk.
  • Seventy-two percent of teens and 48 percent of parents feel the need to immediately respond to texts, social-networking messages, and other notifications.
  • Despite conflicts, most parents feel their teens' use of mobile devices has made no difference or has even helped their relationship.

And findings from the white paper:

  • Internet addiction is potentially serious, but there are still many disagreements about whether it’s a true addiction, how it’s measured, or whether it’s just a manifestation of another disorder, such as depression or ADHD. However, “Internet gaming disorder,” which involves excessive online gaming, may be included by the American Psychiatric Association in the next version of the DSM (the resource used to diagnose psychiatric disorders).
  • Multitasking may be harming our ability to stay focused. Multitasking can hurt your ability to get things done, slow you down, and make it harder to remember things that happened while you were multitasking. One study of laptop users in university classrooms found that students who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture performed worse on a test than students who were not multitasking. Additionally, students who could see others who were multitasking on a computer and were presumably distracted by it also scored lower on a test than those who were not able to view others' laptops. Plus when a student's attention is distracted -- for example, by texting with friends while taking notes in class -- the student may not properly "mentally encode" what the teacher has said. As a result, the student would have greater difficulty retrieving the memory on a test. 

The report also reveals large gaps in research on technology addiction. Much of the research reviewed was conducted with college students and adult populations, not specifically with children. We could use much better research on how problematic media use is affecting children as they grow and how it affects learning in formal and informal environments.

In the meantime, here are four things you can do in your school or classroom to address these potential pitfalls with technology addiction:

1. Talk to students about digital balance.
Our digital citizenship resources on this topic will help you jumpstart the conversations:

2. Use classroom-management tools to help you limit digital distractions.
Check out our list of Top Classroom Management Apps and Websites for support in keeping students focused.

3. Make classroom technology integration deep and engaging to minimize the potential for distractions.
Our teaching strategies for dealing with digital distraction offer some great tips and resources for keeping students active and engaged.

4. Provide guidance to parents.  
Point parents to our digital citizenship resources for families, send tips home with your students, or address these important topics during parent events at school.