How to Help Students Resist Their Phones and Develop Better Digital Habits
Excessive phone use can lead to depression and poor school performance, but building academic confidence can forge healthier habits.
This summer I ran away to the woods to be out of cell service because I needed to get some writing done. I had tried to finish my book at home, at coffee shops, and even while on vacation. None of it worked because I was fighting a losing battle with my phone and technology.
I’m someone who remembers life before the iPhone and whose first exposure to social media was copying and pasting code into MySpace, and my upbringing was a world away from the one my students live in.
By the time a child is 5 years old, there will be around 1,000 to 1,500 photos of them online. On average, kids 8 to 10 years old spend around six hours a day in front of a screen, with that figure reaching about 7.5 hours by the age of 15.
The fact that students have access to anything they want to learn in an instant is truly a miracle. Yet, we can’t ignore the fact that this miracle has a dark side.
Consider that teens who spend seven hours or more each day on screens—which is actually below average—are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as those who spend an hour a day on screens. And research shows that excessive screen time, particularly passive media consumption, can result in poorer school performance.
This is the reality I sat with during the 2021–22 school year. In the past, I’ve never been strict with phones in my classroom because I’ve never felt the need. My policy was that they should be put away, and for the most part, it wasn’t an issue. Last year, however, I noticed that students were having a harder time keeping off their phones. To be honest—and I’m sure many teachers would agree here—it was maddening. As a teacher, I spent a lot of time frustrated.
But then I remembered that although I’m not of their generation, in order to focus and finish my book, I had to be intentional about how I regulated my own technology use. When I shifted my focus and began reflecting on the changes I’ve made personally, I began to develop a new approach to helping students learn how to regulate their own technology in the classroom.
Reset the Foundation
Students are coming to us with a pattern of behavior around their cell phones that is now habitual. We must recognize that technology overuse is not necessarily a conscious choice, but rather a habit that they’ve developed to cope with boredom and uncomfortable situations.
James Clear’s book Atomic Habits summarizes lots of research around habits and identifies four key elements of them: cue, craving, response, and reward. For many students, the cue is boredom or discomfort. After that, they crave something that will provide them with dopamine, and they pick up their phone for an easy, good feeling. We often downplay the power of this process. It is incredibly difficult to break without removing the access to the response and reward.
As such, it’s crucial that educators make it extremely difficult for students to access their phones, as a first step in rewiring how students respond to boredom or discomfort.
But even after we’ve removed phones and attempted to break the habit, the expectation that this behavioral change will stick long-term is foolhardy if we don’t focus on the cognitive landscape in our classrooms.
I now watch the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma with my ninth-grade classes. We read articles about the harm that social media can do and discuss how social media is not bad on its own, but it can have really damaging effects if not used well. Maybe it’s just my personality, but when someone tells me no without telling me why, I typically push back hard on those rules.
Building Academic Confidence
In my work in assessment and motivation, one thing becomes very clear: If we want students to be motivated and engaged to do something as difficult as resisting social media, we have to nurture their confidence first, which means providing them with opportunities for competence.
One way that I’ve been able to do this in my classroom is through the intentional use of learning progressions—from identifying background knowledge and key vocabulary to being able to apply and evaluate those concepts. This helps students access the learning where they need to and tangibly see their growth to begin developing that confidence.
When we see evidence of growth, it motivates us to continue trying. This is crucial when it comes to students and technology regulation. Almost all phones now come with a built-in screen time tracker that students can use to see how they’re doing. In addition, some device-management programs like GoGuardian come with reports that analyze how focused students were. Using these tools can help students understand the problem and also track growth.
Build In Problem-solving Processes
Many students use their cell phones as digital pacifiers when they get stuck in the classroom. Teachers have lamented to me about the rise in students’ simply not attempting anything difficult. Students are grappling with deeply ingrained behaviors of avoidance in part because they ran into instances during remote learning where they were stuck and did not possess the necessary problem-solving skills to get themselves unstuck.
Rebuilding their confidence as problem solvers can be as simple as this great digital twist on the traditional “Ask Three Before Me” problem-solving approach from Heather Dowd.
Stay the Course
Researchers estimate that the average attention span when on a screen is about 47 seconds, down from 2.5 minutes in 2004. We all need help focusing on difficult tasks when using technology because it’s just so easy to switch tabs. But every time we do that, it takes about 25 minutes to regain that level of focus.
Most devices now offer apps or extensions designed to help us focus and get into a flow state. (As I write this, I’m using one called Forest.) If we know that kids are struggling, we should introduce them to the tools they can use to control their impulses online.
The goal isn’t to simply remove access to phones and technology for the long term. As a teacher, my job is to prepare students to be successful. If they never learn how to be productive with technology, that struggle is going to carry into their jobs, their relationships, and their families. It’s important that we gradually allow students more access to their phones while providing supports to help them monitor and combat preexisting habits.
If we know that our goal is to help our students lead fulfilling, successful lives, we must help them navigate the reality that technology will only advance. With that advancement, the ability to steal attention away will get more integrated and sophisticated. To prepare them for that, students need to know that they have the capacity to succeed in pursuing those goals, but also that we are all struggling to maintain focus in a distraction-driven world, and it never hurts to find support to lean on along the way.