Distraction technologies: telephones worry the teacher for the future of her students

“We know TikTok is bad for us, but it’s better than the real world.”

These are the words of one of my ninth graders, a tall, skinny teenager with big dark glasses. He announced this to our first grade English class on the last day of school last spring.

We had a class discussion about their future. Some mentioned taking health and driving courses at summer school; others mentioned jobs at the beach and at the community center.

“But I’m worried about our future,” added the student, pointing to an invisible horizon.

He went on a litany of reasons for his despondency: the pandemic, rising school shootings and gun violence, eroding social service budgets, current and future dangers of climate change, divided nature of politics in America, global conflict, the stress of standardized testing, escalating mental health crises within his generation, and debates over what should and shouldn’t be taught in schools.

Yet as I watched the class, 90% of whom were on the phone, an additional worry about their future became clear. It was right there, in the hands of the students.

I’m about to start my 20th year of teaching high school English, and I’m growing increasingly concerned about the implications of teaching a generation of digitally addicted teenagers. Phones ring, buzz, vibrate and flash, constantly drawing students away from their physical academic settings into a virtual loop of TikTok videos, Snapchat messages and barrages of targeted ads for food delivery and teen fashion.

Many schools have cell phone policies, but these are difficult to enforce. Teachers who try to limit phone use in class plead, beg, bargain, and offer well-documented statistics, candy, and extra credit.

Others collect phones in baskets or shoe racks. I tried these things for years. I’ve also tried, as many teachers do, to incorporate phones into the curriculum, designing lessons that use apps. These lessons are fun, but they happen between dozens of notifications flooding students’ phones every minute. The problem is not the phones. The problem is the addiction to social media apps delivered through phones.

Constant intrusion

The irony is that teens don’t want to use social media as much as they do.

A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that 54% of teens said they spent too much time on their phones and 60% said being online all the time was a major problem for them. Unsurprisingly, their feelings after the pandemic got worse.

Some students try to put their phones away. But soon they fidget and contract. Phones are back on desks, hidden in books or behind school Chromebooks. (A screen behind a screen!)

Today’s teenagers are certainly not the first to slip something behind a book. When I was in high school, we hid comics behind texts that we read, passed notes and launched paper airplanes. But we weren’t addicted to something that kept us from learning. We weren’t wired into a bottomless kaleidoscopic virtual loop that makes us feel bad about ourselves – in a world that already gives us too much to worry about.

Parents also need to do their part. Many of my students receive frequent texts and calls from their parents during class, who seem to believe that their child should be accessible to them at all times of the school day. However, parents seem surprised to learn that their child is on the phone during class.

The constant intrusion prevents adolescents from the necessary individuation that schools are supposed to provide and prevents them from discovering themselves – from finding their place in the future that my student said he was preoccupied with.

There is a difference between connection technologies and distraction technologies.

The school is a space where students explore and debate ideas, formulate and defend arguments. These skills take time to develop. The longer students use social media apps in class, the harder it will be for them to learn and grow.

We are back in person for another school year. I try to create a better world for my students, to help them build a future that will outlast the concerns my student is concerned about. A future that will last longer than any TikTok loop.

Luz W. German