“Old-school,” “old-soul,” “technophobe,” and “Luddite” are all adjectives used to describe my complicated and resistant relationship with technology. Admittedly, some of my reluctance is selfish because screens don’t feel natural, and—as a mental health clinician—I am too aware of the anguish teens suffer from social media and other content. I also have the responsibility as a school administrator to discipline students who engage in inappropriate and unkind behavior in the cyber world, so that experience has shaped my lens further. I have made some progress, and I am continually impressed by the innovation and creativity demonstrated by educators; however, I still feel unsettled about the amount of exposure to screens for our learners. It diminishes the joy of human connection, inhibits creativity, thwarts childhood innocence, and stunts emotional expression. Not to mention the physiological and psychological impact it has on our children.

Last week, a colleague told me that I need to “get out of the ‘90s” when I made a pop culture reference. I realized when working with newer teachers that my anti-screen stance is generational as well. I understand that early-career educators may not have many tech-free childhood memories, thereby cultivating desensitization to the oversaturation of blinking lights, pop-ups, and fast-moving graphics. They never had to wait for a dial-up connection or accept the austerity of PC games, so they might not appreciate the push for a simpler, non-tech way of life.

As a therapist, I have the privilege of hearing teenagers’ true thoughts and feelings regarding technology, and a theme of late is that they don’t want to be on screens, but they feel like they don’t have an option. They have admitted that they use technology as an escape or an addiction to fill the void of boredom and social isolation. Most have shared that they long for social connection and conversations that aren’t related to superficial topics on TikTok. They have also shared the social and emotional toll of peer feedback and the incessant pressure to get “likes” or approval based on their posts.

While technology can certainly enrich learning and foster innovation, I wonder if we are doing students a disservice by not challenging them to be more imaginative. We’re allowing them to rely on ideas they find after a Google search, and many students try to take credit for the ideas of others online because they are more concerned with marking the task off their to-do list than losing themselves in a creative endeavor. Students are so dependent on the information they receive from the internet that, when left to their own devices (no pun intended), they have difficulty coming up with original ideas or taking intellectual risks for fear that someone will post their mistake online.

Does this fear happen because critical thinking is exhausting? Or is it more about the fear of exclusion because doing something constructive isn’t as cool as numbingly scrolling through exaggerated Instagram posts? Are learners scared to lose themselves in a creative project because they might miss the latest piece of riveting gossip? As educators, is there room for more intentionality about the assignments and projects we provide?

I think the issue lies with the grown-ups in their lives who are supposed to protect their time as a child. Recently, when my daughters were arguing over a game and I interjected, the oldest one said, “What do you care? You only care about being on your phone!” I had to accept that she was right. I am victim to the distraction myself; it has become the norm for so many of us.

How can we honestly expect our learners and children to choose non-tech activities when they see us glued to screens at work and home? We need to get better at modeling what we want for our children.

We need to be more mindful about the amount of time we expect our learners to be on screens and think twice about giving them tech-dependent activities. As school administrators, we have an obligation to protect students in every sense of the word. As we bring students back to the brick-and-mortar learning model, we need to strike a balance and break screen-dependent habits that we have propagated through our remote instructional practices.

Consider these suggestions for your faculty:

  • Stress the efficacy of project-based learning, and offer examples and professional learning opportunities for faculty.
  • Encourage teachers to refer to the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition (SAMR) model when introducing an assignment.
  • Provide a pencil and paper option for students when the assignment allows.
  • Consider crayons: They hold a special place in childhood; let’s not lose sight of that.
  • Offer a novel or hard copy of the reading passage to students when available.
  • Keep in mind that all work done in a remote setting is essentially “homework,” and students are operating around the schedules of working family members or siblings.
  • Remember: We can’t expect students to remain attentive and organized when they are home alone if we haven’t explicitly taught them time-management skills or how to find their own balance.
  • Lead with compassion and listen to provide support before making assumptions or judgments about the resources or parenting skills—or lack thereof—of families. Many are struggling to parent effectively, and the best way to support students is by partnering with the people who love them most. 
  • Be candid with faculty about the detriment of “busy work” and how it detracts from true learning.
  • Make sure there are opportunities for students to provide feedback about their experiences and their learning preferences. 
  • Encourage the use of choice boards to provide differentiation and non-screen activities.
  • Enlist the support of school counselors and social workers if district software shows that students are watching thematic content; many students voice wanting an adult in their lives to help them process online content.
  • Partner with students to design cellphone policies that are developmentally appropriate and value a commitment to serving the whole learner. Promote classroom discussions about cellphone expectations and empower learners to understand the predatory nature of social media.
  • Elevate assignments that call on independent and original thinking and provide parameters to increase creativity.

Finding a balance with screens is larger than imposing restrictions for children and teens; it is about modeling, fostering candid and engaging discussions, empowering learners, providing resources, setting clear expectations, and designing assessments and learning opportunities that call upon creativity and imagination. Professional learning opportunities for faculty should focus on the mindful integration of technology, the fixed mindset related to project-based learning, and the efficacy of socialized learning.

This is not a call to abandon the fact that technology certainly has a place in education; this is simply a plea to vet tools and to reflect on the value added to the learning experience for every single student. 

Alicia N. Johnson is an assistant principal at Baldwin High School in Pittsburgh. She is also a licensed professional counselor.