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Why Principals Worry About How Mobile Devices Affect Students’ Social Skills, Attention Spans

By Alyson Klein — June 02, 2020 7 min read
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One thing was very clear when schools made a massive pivot to remote learning this spring: Students, who already spent huge amounts of time staring at cellphone and computer screens, would be on them even more.

The impact that the increased screen time will likely have on K-12 students’ development and social skills is yet to be seen. But the potentially negative effects were already a big concern among educators and child-development experts well before the pandemic. Now, those concerns are heightened and will likely rise if the pandemic forces schools to continue systemwide virtual learning programs.

At the same time, educators are seeing the potential benefits of the expanded use of digital devices and weighing those upsides against the downsides.

Prior to the pandemic, in February, the EdWeek Research Center surveyed 965 principals and teachers on a host of questions related to the use of digital devices by K-12 students in, and outside of, school. The nationally representative survey shows, for instance, that more than half of educators said their students are less skilled at in-person interactions than they and their peers were at the same age, because they are so accustomed to interacting via devices. And about 40 percent said students need explicit instruction on how to interact with others in person because so much of their experience with human interaction comes from devices.

Those findings are arguably even more relevant today, as schools have scrambled this spring to equip more and more students with Chromebooks, iPads, and other digital devices they can use to learn at home. Students will be bringing those devices back to school buildings once they reopen to use in their classrooms.

Education Week followed up in February with interviews of several principals who responded to the survey, such as Tom Denning, the principal of Riley Elementary School in Gold Beach, Ore., for a big-picture view of how the proliferation of digital devices are affecting students, teachers, and school life in general. Here’s what the principals had to say.

‘Technology Moves Faster Than We Do’

Denning recalled when he used to have to tell students to stop talking so loud on the bus ride to a field trip. Now the ride is quiet: All the students have their earbuds in or are on their cellphones.

“They’ll send a text and not deal with anything face to face,” Denning said. “There’s a concern that they are not learning how to deal with people. They don’t know how to deal with emotions, and it’s not a good situation.”

Katherine Meints, the principal of Brentsville High School in Prince William County, Va., shares those concerns.

“They are losing the nuance of conversation,” she said. “In the lunchroom, kids are sharing TikToks and Snapchats. I would say a lot of the conversation and maybe a quarter of the room stems around something that’s happening on their phones.”

The changes in student interactions are just one example of how the proliferation of cellphones, tablets, and other mobile devices are shifting the culture of K-12 far beyond teaching and learning, impacting social and emotional factors, discipline, and student attention.

On the one hand, educators overwhelmingly say cellphones distract their students, make it easier for them to cheat and plagiarize, and have contributed to a whole host of classroom-management challenges. On the other hand, cellphones make it easier to communicate with parents, can be a great student motivational tool, and can open up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to teaching and learning.

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In many ways, mobile devices have “made things better for students. It’s weighing all the good things while making sure that the negative things become nonissues,” said Ryan Merritt, the principal of Stanford Elementary School in Las Vegas. “The biggest struggle for anyone in our field is that technology moves faster than we do.”

‘Treasure Trove of Information’

For all the school-related headaches that come with the proliferation of modern communication tools, many teachers and principals say that mobile devices in schools have helped improve student learning. In fact, the majority–64 percent–said students learn at least a “little” or “lot” more thanks to mobile devices, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey.

“You can find a treasure trove of information instantly,” said Kevin Keltner, the principal of Fort Zumwalt South High School in St. Peters, Mo. “I think that’s helped students as they engage in the world and interact with others.”

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For instance, Denning’s students use their devices in social studies class to supplement history lessons with real-world, real-time information. A teacher might have students check the latest polls in a political race or see what’s going on with the coronavirus. “Our textbooks aren’t going to cover that,” he said.

Cellphones also help schools stay in better contact with families. In fact, 75 percent say the possibility of parent communication through mobile devices—and applications such as Seesaw and ClassDojo that allow for parent communication—have had a positive effect on the quality of parent-teacher communication. Sixty-one percent responded that devices have been good for student academic outcomes. And 51 percent say they’ve improved behavior.

Educators also use social media to keep parents in the loop about what’s going on in school. Erik Paulson, the principal of Harmony Elementary School in Middletown, N.J., said he documents what’s going on in his classrooms for families.

“If I see something cool going on, I’ll snap a pic and send it out” on social media, he said. “Parents like that.”

But the parent-communication apps also come with a downside, said Scott Clayton, the principal of Scofield Magnet Middle School in Stamford, Conn.: They can cause some serious anxiety, both for parents and students.

“I think sometimes it stresses kids and parents out a little bit,” he said. Parents will get an instant notification that a teacher has updated a grade. “It increases their stress and their need to check their grades all the time. ... I advise parents to disable the instant notification” so they aren’t immediately alerted to grade changes.

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Most educators surveyed said their schools don’t allow unrestricted cellphone use in classrooms. Just over a quarter–28 percent–say cellphones are permitted in school but must be kept in pouches that render them inoperable or not be used at all during the day. Another 16 percent say students may have their phones with them during the day but can only use them outside of instructional time. And another 15 percent allow teachers to set their own classroom practices.

Jay Posick, the principal of Merton Intermediate School in Merton, Wis., said his students don’t need to use their smartphones in class because the district offers each of them a Chromebook. But he says he allows cellphones in school because parents are insistent.

“Our parents are reliant upon their children’s cellphones,” he said. “They’d rather text their son or daughter than let the main office [get in touch with their children].”

‘The Biggest Behavior Problem’

The constant stimulation from mobile devices has taken a toll on students’ attention spans, educators say.

More than half of educators surveyed, 55 percent, said they “completely agreed” that the amount of time students spend on devices meant they had shorter attention spans than their classmates when they were in school. Another 32 percent “partly agreed” with that statement. Just 8 percent said they “partly” or “completely” disagreed.

What’s more, cellular technology makes it easier for students to avoid focusing on their work in class, the survey found.

More than half of educators–56 percent–said that students are too often off-task on their mobile devices, using the technology for one thing when they are supposed to be focusing on another. And a majority of educators, also 56 percent, said that when students are off- task, they are most likely playing digital games. About another quarter said students are listening to or watching videos or on social media when they are off-task.

Some schools have found a workaround: Stanford Elementary in Las Vegas, for instance, has installed a tracking app so that teachers can see exactly what kids are looking at online.

Mobile devices also complicate teaching because the facts and figures that students used to be forced to memorize are merely a Google search away. That can make it tougher for educators to get students to focus on what they are learning in class, said Denning from Riley Creek Elementary in Oregon.

“That’s probably the biggest behavior problem I deal with on a regular basis is defiance and disrespect from the kids. They don’t need us,” Denning said. “They can get all the answers they need on that computer.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Why Principals Worry About How Mobile Devices Affect Students

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