I remember the first time I proposed screen-free days in our school to some of our student leaders. It was a couple of years ago, and we were having an informal conversation during recess about the benefits of technology. I asked how they would feel if we had entire days dedicated to learning with no internet-connected devices.
One of the students in the conversation, who I know to have great insights, appeared perplexed. “Do you mean we won’t use our Chromebooks for the whole day? What will we do then?” He was very concerned. It was clear that this ever-conscientious student relied on the technology to learn.
The questions gave me pause. As someone who was in school well before technology integration and one-to-one device implementation, I felt it was only natural that we could put technology aside for extended periods of time. The students, who are all digital natives, were far less certain—the concept was foreign to them.
Jokingly, I said to the group, “What if we went a week without using our Chromebooks and smartphones? What do you think that would be like?”
Their nervousness was palpable. They laughed, and one of them said, “No way, Mr. Howell, that would be too much.” I could feel their anxiety, and assured them that I was only considering single screen-free days. Even that idea left them looking skeptical at best.
The Rise in Student Anxiety
Recent studies have shown an increase in student anxiety and depression. While academic pressure tops the list of contributing factors for this rise, the sudden increase in the amount of time students spend online is also shaping the social and emotional life of our learners.
According to Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online. Many of our learners start their day by checking their smartphones. We often see them looking at their devices when getting off of the bus or at parent drop-off—they can’t use their own devices at school. We are a 1:1 school, and we calculate that they will spend a minimum of two hours throughout the day collaborating, researching, and accessing curriculum on their Chromebooks. And it is apparent from conversations that they are fully engaged with technology after the school day is finished.
It’s clear that our students spend a lot of time online. That’s why the staff at my school dedicated time to discussing healthy practices for the integration of technology. While there is no conclusive research regarding what is best, we discussed the life of a typical student and the impact constant access to the internet and social media has on their well-being.
Building a Dam in the River of Technology
My staff and I do see the benefits of technology, which is why we shifted to being 1:1 in the first place, but we also want to ensure that our students have balance and opportunities for positive learning and social experiences away from their screens. In numerous formal and informal conversations with key stakeholders, we have discussed ways we can provide technology-free periods of time without entirely giving up the positive aspects of technology integration.
In our school, we have built in several screen-free days throughout the course of the year that require us to make alternative plans for our students concerning how they will engage with one another and the world around them without technology.
Instructionally, these days allow us to consider our approach to the curriculum from another perspective. For some teachers, this means unearthing a lesson plan that is valuable but has been tabled for some time, while others come up with something completely new. Teachers collaborate and seek ways to help students build their imaginative faculties through hands-on activities.
We see instructional risk-taking that we highly value on these days. On our first screen-free day this year, for example, some teachers planned hands-on, collaborative STEAM activities focused on the engineering and design process. Another teacher facilitated an escape room with students, using challenges linked to literary devices. There is an increase across the board in creating opportunities for students to reflect on their learning as well.
We’re also developing simple events during the year for students to socialize without devices. Board Game Nights will enable entire grade levels to come out and enjoy the company of their peers with no smartphones. We’re encouraging parents to dig around in their closets and dust off their old games—Monopoly, checkers, chess, whatever they have. We want our learners to enjoy face-to-face interactions without checking on their social media likes or considering comments made on their latest group assignment in the cloud.
While these are small steps—we’ll have one screen-free day per quarter this year—we do see benefit in them. After our first screen-free day, students mentioned that they were surprised they had enjoyed it, and they expressed an unexpected sense of relief. Finding ways to help our students connect with one another is essential. While technology is woven into the fabric of our world, it should not be the dominant thread in the tapestry of a learner’s life.