Over the years I’ve received countless emails from concerned parents asking for advice about smartphones. I’m a huge supporter of technology with a purpose and send emails to parents about what happens in the classroom. As a result, I get responses like the following:
“My son _______ is one of your students this term. Currently he does not have a cell phone or a family phone that he brings to school. ______ is our oldest of five kids and we are trying to figure out what is the best way to handle technology inside and outside the home. I would love your opinion of students bringing phones to school. Do you feel like they help with learning? Are they more of a distraction? Or are you indifferent?”
My response to her and many others like her over the years ultimately led to this blog post:
Smartphones: The Salt of the Earth
Can you describe the taste of salt on your tongue without using the word salt? There’s one word that immediately comes to my mind: numbing.
Anyone who has actually put a fair amount of salt directly on their tongue knows what I mean. Too much salt in one go can be painful and numbing. It stings and leaves you unable to taste anything for a time. Too much salt over a longer period of time can even be dangerous to your health.
Similarly, a common perception of smart phones is that they are very much like salt. There are countless videos and articles swimming the internet about the harmful effects of these devices: how too much screen time can numb the senses, perpetuate addictive behavior, impede meaningful communication, promote cyber bullying, and can even cause serious health issues. But despite all of these potential consequences, phones are not going away. Some argue that we just need to embrace them, others dispute that they should be restricted. The spectrum of opinions varies widely, but It all comes down to balance.
When used in balance, smartphones—like salt—can enhance the flavor of life; however, understanding how to balance smartphone use is the pinnacle challenge of this generation. Unfortunately, all too often this tremendous responsibility is left up to chance.
Tool or Diversion
The question is, how can we use smartphones and tablets to enhance life not distract from living? I remember seeing this iPad Air advertisement a few years back in which Apple encouraged the idea of the iPad being a tool, not a distraction. I know it was just good persuasive advertising, but It gave me an idea.
I decided to look at my own apps and see the balance between fun and productive. Some apps were both, so I refined my definitions a bit. I came across the original meaning of amusement (“a diversion intended to deceive”), and it hit me. Diversion. If an app fit the category of diversion, or something that took me away from being productive, I placed it in that category (don’t get me wrong, a little diversion is healthy, but for the sake of this experiment it’s a useful division). Since the opposite was something that aided, encouraged, or fostered productivity, I went with the simple definition of a tool.
I began categorizing my apps by checking them off the lists. If I could check off mainly the last box under tool, the app was placed in that category. If I could check off one or more of the definitions of diversion (sometimes metaphorically), the app was placed in that category. It was purely subjective, but I tried to be honest with myself as some apps could be used productively, but that doesn’t mean I used them that way (eg. social media).
At first, I was proud at the number of my apps in the Tool category, but then I looked at my percentage of time spent on each app. I was astounded at the contrast of time spent on games or social media versus those I considered productive apps (much of my time was spent in the diversion category). I even created a little pie chart to illustrate my usage and later decided to try this with my students.
When discussing this topic with them, and the results were certainly not surprising, most students never even realized how few productive apps they had on their phones; let alone how little time they spent on those apps if they had them. I even had one student who was allowed very few additional apps because of restrictions set by her parents. After tallying them, every single app beyond the default were various types of social media—ones she felt were not used productively.
Through this process, I was also reminded of a TED Talk entitled “How Better Tech Could Protect Us From Distraction” in which the speaker describes some aspects of how apps—especially social media—are designed and developed to be addictive, but don’t need to be. I have students every year who admit to being addicted to their devices, but don’t really know what to do about it.
The Real Problem with Smartphones
So, here’s the problem. Apple advertises the profound creative use of their devices, seemingly encouraging people to use iPads and iPhones to truly enhance everyday experiences. But when are we actually taught to use them in this way? Most aren’t. Let me say that again, most students are never really taught how to use smartphones productively.
I sincerely believe these devices have the capacity to enliven our experiences, but again how many of us know how? From social media to gaming, even many of the apps considered most harmful can be used productively.
The more I reflect on this topic, the more I like the analogy of salt. Despite some clear dangers of too much, salt is essential. Any athlete knows this. Anyone who’s been dehydrated knows the importance of not only replenishing water but salt as well. Historically it had great significance as a valuable commodity. It is also one of the most widely used spices in the world—specifically used to enhance flavor—which is not surprising since in the right amounts, it can enrich the taste of almost anything. When used judiciously, it even brings out the flavor in cookies, ice cream, and other sweets. Beyond flavor, it even has the ability to preserve food, and for centuries became an essential ingredient in the preservation of life through the darkest times. Fundamentally, salt has had a tremendous impact on improving the quality life.
Smartphones' Potential to Improve
Now, let’s look at smartphones from the perspective of improving the quality of life, like salt. Just as a chef enhances a meal with a sprinkle of salt, so too can activities be sprinkled with just enough technology to transform the taste of the experience—but not too much to detract from other subtleties of flavor in the experience. In other words, those little details in life that make our days worth living, those are the subtleties that can easily be overpowered by a demanding device.
Smartphones, if used to compliment activities, can enhance and even transform entirely an overall experience. If we look at the countless activities we partake in on a daily basis, how many of them can be augmented by a smartphone?
Consider camping. Although most people wouldn’t think of smartphones or tablets as a positive addition to camping, sprinkle in some geocaching, walkie talkie apps for night games, a Foldscope microscope to aid exploration, camera apps and lenses to preserve memories or fuel a hobby, an astronomy app to stargaze, and a pinch of local hiking trail maps and your experience is seasoned to perfection.
Essentially, smartphones and tablets are not inherently evil. But again, if youth never learn to use their devices in this way, if they never have examples of productive use, they become a distraction from the activities—not an enhancement. I’ve spoken with so many students, teachers, and parents about smartphones and devices; frankly, most people do very little to teach youth to use devices productively (or even adults for that matter). They clearly have the potential to improve, but most often detract people from being truly present in the experience if not taught otherwise.
How to Use Devices More Productively
In education, there are two primary models to help structure learning around technology: SAMR & PICRAT. The idea behind both is that technology—used deliberately—has the capacity to not only enhance learning but transform it. Where students can become creators of knowledge, not just consumers of it. That is the goal isn’t it? To inspire students and facilitate an environment where they can be creative.
What I personally would do is talk to my kids about the two sides of phone usage. I'd talk to them about how they would like to use the phone and have them research apps they think would help with their interests or needs. I’d have my kids show me what apps they want to get before they could get a phone. I’d possibly even have my kids make a plan for what to do if they recognize their spending too much time on phones, or they encounter other more serious issues that surround phone usage—before they actually get a phone. Ultimately, I’d focus on how phones could be a benefit and not focus too much on the negative.
This is my plea with parents and fellow teachers: I’m sorry for sounding like a broken record, but we must teach youth how to use smartphones and tablets productively. If we don’t, most will follow the path of least resistance, downloading apps designed to enslave. The best way to do this is through example, and as many students won’t have that kind of example at home (like the concerned parent at the start of this post) then that responsibility falls on educators.
So, the question is, how are you teaching your students, or even your own children, to enhance and transform life experiences?
Below are just a few examples of how devices could be used productively:
For a more comprehensive list, just Google one of the headings below (eg. Google "organization apps").
Exploration: geocaching, maps, augmented reality fieldtrips, measuring, planets/solar walk,
Add-ons: Foldscope, photography lenses, projectors, VR (Google Cardboard),
Creative Apps: iMovie, Adobe Suite, iBooks Author, programming, music creators, podcast recorder, web design, interactive infographs
Idea Development & Recording: Note taking (paper)
Knowledge, Curiosity, and Hobbies: overdrive & Libby (audiobooks through local libraries), podcasts, Language learning, flashcards, math tutoring, periodic table, brain apps, portfolio creation, drawing tutorials, voice tutors, photography tutors, guitar tutors, bird watching, garden planning, the list is endless. Do you have a hobby? There's probably apps for it.
Organization: Scanning Apps (camscanner), Project Management (basecamp is amazing and free for teachers), time management, Goal Setting & Homework To-Do’s, email organizing, Remind, pocket (save articles from social media in one place)
Health: Athletic Goal Setting for Athletic Improvement, mindfulness & meditation (calm), heart rate monitors, weight watching & calorie counting, yoga, heart rate monitors, quick workouts, sleep cycle, exercise videos and personal trainers, positive psychology, charity running, personal coaching, music specific to working out, etc.
Social Media: Twitter & Linked-in (increase professional network), Pinterest & Instagram (Follow and obtain tips from experts in many hobby areas, or share your own developing expertise—great for Genius Hour), Facebook and WhatsApp (keeping in contact with friends & Family as well as marketing and selling products), and so many more. Think of ways social media could be used productively.
Financial Management: Banking, budgeting tools, saving from purchases, investing & trading, freelance project tracking, etc.
A note on restricting access:
Recently a parent asked about Disney Circle. Don’t get me wrong. Disney circle is a great tool, but it should be used to limit access to help guide the use of smart phones rather than restrict everything. I personally love the capability of devices like the Circle. This would allow me time to give access to my children by small degrees—when they’re ready. For example. I would allow my kids to use apps like Overdrive or Libby to listen and read books. But I may not give permission to social media until after my daughter has expressed an interest in a specific topic. I would show her how I use twitter, for example, to build my professional network. I use Pinterest to gather ideas (I like to cook). I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family globally, etc.
I heard a story at an ed tech conference a few years back by a speaker. He related an experience where his company hired someone right out of college. The boy hired had never been in a situation where his internet access was entirely UNrestricted. Within his first week on the job, he spent more time on YouTube and social media on the work computers than actually doing his job. Needless to say, he was fired, but the moral of the story is that teaching kids self-regulation is more important than just blocking everything—because how will they behave when in a situation where restrictions are no longer present? They won’t always have parents or teachers to protect them.
Matt Strock is a passionate teacher, instructional coach, experience designer, learning & development consultant, speaker, writer, life-long learner, maker, change maker, and innovator.
The pilcrow or paragraph symbol was originally used to signify "the beginning of a train of thought." The Pilcrow Times began in my classroom with texts specifically chosen to spark thoughts and ideas that most students wouldn't normally consider with the intention to create a cognitive shift..