I’m really honoured to have the opportunity in my role to use technology creatively and deliberately with the intention to enhance learning and to free up more time for what only our incredible Teachers can do.
Using digital tools for innovative learning, positive community building, and to help develop skills and opportunities for others has been at the heart of what I have done in my career. I love my job.
However, recently my thoughts on technology have become complicated.
In the last two years I have noticed that when I am not deliberately and intentionally using technology, I feel a pull and genuine struggle to resist my phone or laptop all of the time. I’m 39 years old, a Father of two, a Teacher, and the Head of Digital Learning at Basingstoke College of Technology. I personally have to consciously remove myself from these temptations and I don’t think I’m the only one.
In September 2021 we created a 1 hour ‘Digital Wellbeing’ module Induction for all of our Full Time learners to help them become more mindful about their relationship with technology eg how we can use it to help our lives and careers, for recreation and entertainment, and also when we unintentionally find our time being consumed by it for more than we want.
Among the modules’ games, quizzes, videos, and case studies of our learners, one activity had the most impact – the ‘Life Calculator’ asked the learners to find their mobile device screen time usage and then click on a ‘card’ to turn it over to reveal how much of their lives they spend looking at their phone.
- The average mobile device screen time for 16-19 year olds was 5.7 hours – which, if they live to 80, will equate to roughly 13 years of their lives looking at their phones.
The Digital Wellbeing module results, feedback from learners in Tutorial sessions, and the engagement with the resources on this topic (e.g. time management/ focus/ apps and sites to manage tech use) showed us that others felt what we did. 71% of the learners stated that they appreciated the college helping them develop more control over moderating their use of technology designed to mine their attention. Throughout the year we followed up with learners and witnessed patterns of real world behaviour which correlated with a wider pattern of the stories heard from colleagues at other schools and colleges we supported.
Here are two stories about learners and how we worked to meet them where they are.
“Apathy’s a tragedy
And boredom is a crime
Anything and everything
All of the time”
In February, Learner 1 was identified by the Support team at the college as, like many of us, having difficulty focusing in class and it was felt that he was wasting time and producing work that did not represent his best efforts. We asked Learner 1 to complete an interactive 168 Hour Spreadsheet to reveal how they use their time across the week – once they selected the drop downs for each hour across each day for categories such as Sleep, Study, Travel, Work etc it generated a pie chart which showed us his use of time as a baseline.
The most striking stats for Learner 1 were that they spent 32% of their life playing games, 12% studying, and 19% sleeping; ‘I don’t mean to play games this much – I just look at my phone and it’s 3am. I don’t mean to spend that much time doing it’.
In study support chats, Learner 1 opened up about how it was ‘being bored’ that triggered his craving for particular websites and games and that ‘it is just easier than studying and it’s just more fun and I don’t get as much enjoyment from anything else, but I do feel guilty when I wake up the next day late and tired’.
He was interested in the science of why he/ we couldn’t stop ourselves sometimes so over the period of 2 months at the end of the year we investigated how some technology can use our own psychology against us, in some instances eroding our ability to deal with challenge, feeling lonely, and being uncomfortable so we can suckle on a ‘digital dummy’ for comfort rather than lean into friction, face threat, take physical action, and push across a threshold. I was honest with him and told him how I struggle with checking email all the time and trying to be productive – and I’m addicted to it like he was to his website and games. We quickly became a team checking in on each other. We bonded over a growing understanding of how some tech designers and engineers were pointing manipulation engines at our brains with largely commercial interests – and that we had to do our best to resist this. In weekly meetings we compared ‘screen time’ and tried to bring awareness back to our brain capacity as simple homo-sapiens, trading tips on limiting compulsive over-consumption and sharing ways we could change our habits to protect our minds.
‘Building and imbibing healthy digital habits is a promising preventive measure conducive to health in the light of globally growing digitalisation.’
Lodha and Pandya
Learner 1 agreed to adjust their phone to ‘Black and White’ mode at 6pm every day to make it less tempting (particular websites were too tempting for this learner and this provided a subconscious nudge) and to automatically ‘Turn Off Notifications’ for their Discord chat app until 08:00 the next day on college nights (late night eSports training was his biggest temptation) and reserved as a treat for weekends. Written tasks, always a difficult challenge for Learner 1, were helped with the use of Rainymood.com and Focus music playlists open in another tab to help him (as opposed to his usual ever changing recommended YouTube videos and adverts) and the use of the Pomodoro technique (25 mins work/ 5 min break) to chunk his workflow into achievable and realistic steps.
Our last meeting was at the end of the year and, as with many of our learners, we do not always get to see the benefits of the seeds we plant with them. I do know that his gaming time was down to 23% of his life when I last saw him and he reported improvements in his sleep (a newfound love of podcasts helped with this), and his ability to focus in and out of class. I’m really thankful to him as it helped me as well.
It is difficult to help a young person realise that all things of lasting and deep value require time and nurturing and come to us only through our own effort, particularly when we can get so much instant and overwhelming gratification from other sources. Gaming is fun, we all have our vices, and it gave him great joy – it was the unthinking and unchecked rabbit hole of lost hours every college night that he grew to appreciate being more aware of.
‘Across a diverse array of well-being measures, including measures of self-control, relationships with caregivers, emotional stability, diagnoses of anxiety and depression, and mental health treatment, psychological well-being was progressively lower from 1 h a day of screen time to 7 or more hours a day of screen time, particularly among adolescents’
Twenge and Campbell
I noticed how defensive Learner 2 was about doing the Digital Wellbeing module during Induction and it stuck with me how deadpan she was about how she ‘could not stop looking at Insta and TikTok’ for at least 5 hours a day, every day, and didn’t want to stop.
Learner 2 had created humorous videos on trending dance/ anime based content and in doing so gained a couple of thousand followers in a self-created empire she was proud to share with us. A lot of work had gone into this and she built friendships in these spaces that were meaningful. Fellow learners around her laughed at their own stats before arguing with me that it’s really fun and for them and a lot of other people they knew social media has been helpful to combat loneliness over the last two years. I made it clear that social media can help them enormously and we are not asking anyone to stop – just to make sure that we are using it when we want and that it isn’t just using us and taking away our time. It was an intense conversation.
I bumped into Learner 2 again in June when helping out in her class and casually asked her how the social media was going – this time when she showed me her posts they were all about her mental health issues which had hundreds of likes and comments. I asked if she was working with our Support team (she was) before her Teacher added to the conversation that Learner 2 was struggling with meeting deadlines and doing the long-form reading and writing needed to achieve her potential. Indeed, during college days her social media use was spiking when she needed to ‘do the work’ – Learner 2 herself acknowledged this as a problem and her Teacher arranged support sessions with me.
Online, Learner 2 was composed, controlled and confident. In real life she was fragile, uncertain, and afraid when facing real world pressures such as challenging practical tasks, social interactions, and deadlines. In follow up chats the phrase ‘my depression and anxiety stop me from…’ was a constant part of our conversations and seen as separate from her habitual dissociative compulsion to be her own brand manager and brand in order to earn her audience’s constant looping feedback. Learner 2 cared about what her tribe thinks of her, this innate and deeply human desire for social approval of the couple of thousands of followers (not real life friends and family) who ‘needed her’ required a lot of her effort and energy – I wonder if this is something anyone has evolved to cope with.
We began making visible our habits to control them. We set app timer limits on our respective phones and agreed to check in with one another each week (I did it for Instagram and Gmail). We both agreed to give the app ‘Forest’ a go which helped us beat our phone addiction and earn credits by not using our devices and planting real trees around the world with the credits – after a month her record was 2 hour and 15 minutes of study without looking at her phone. Encouraging her skill as a creator we supported her in constructing new social media content that helped her achieve assessment criteria e.g. vlogs and podcast debates with our green screen, lights and camera set-up, which gave me a chance to check in on her and how we were keeping to our limits.
My attempts to help were often laughed at but at the same time it was clear that Learner 2 was sculpted by the world she happened to have been dropped into and her conflation of value and truth with self-worth and identity on social media was not entirely dis-similar from my own.
If our attention is our most valuable resource, and we are what we repeatedly do, and the neurochemistry of a generation is being changed…how might we help one another with this?
“Take off them fabricated streams
And them microwave memes
It’s a real world outside”
Futurist Gerd Leonhard states that tech should enhance the Compassion, Originality, Responsibility, and Empathy (C.O.R.E) skills that are most valuable to us as humans – I think Gerd is on to something.
We know that there are some digital businesses built on the base wants and desires of our learners – we have a chance as Educators to show how digital can be used to develop the needs of the learners and our communities and help us all have a healthier and more productive, prepared, and positive relationship with technology.
By Scott Hayden, Head of Digital Learning + Teacher, Basingstoke College of Technology