From distraction to addiction

March 13, 2018
Phil McRae, ATA Executive Staff Officer

Each day, the average Canadian student spends approximately seven hours and 45 minutes in front of some sort of screen, such as a smartphone, tablet, television or computer. Digital technologies have become inextricably entwined in many of our lives and are now noticeably shaping our students’ identities, habits of mind and physical exposure to the world around them.

In fact, according to a 2015 research study by Microsoft, our attention span has been reduced to that of a goldfish, less than eight seconds, by the clickable hyperlinks and constant demands of our digitally drenched mobile lives. Eight seconds is approximately the amount of time it took you to read up to this point, so thank you for staying with me this far. Less than a decade ago we had a 12-second attention span; as our screens colonize our lives, so our attention span diminishes.

To better understand the scope of physical, mental and social consequences of digital technologies in areas such as exercise, homework, identity formation, distraction, cognition, learning, technology compulsions, nutrition and sleep habits, researchers from the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the University of Alberta, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have been working on a long-term collaborative initiative entitled Growing Up Digital (GUD) Alberta.

The first phase of the GUD Alberta research initiative, conducted in 2016, explored teachers’ and principals’ perspectives around technology, health and learning, and highlighted the paradox of technology both enhancing and distracting learning.

The second phase of GUD Alberta engaged more than 3,500 Alberta parents and grandparents with detailed questions about the impact of technology on their own children and grandchildren. This survey, completed this year, represents the largest sample in North America, and perhaps the world, on parent and grandparent perspectives around technology, health and learning.

Next year the third phase will directly involve students across the province between the ages of 12 and 17 and attempt to better understand the impact of emerging technologies as they relate to their knowledge, lifestyles, learning and overall health and well-being.

Second phase

This phase of the research was designed to investigate the perceptions of Alberta parents, guardians and grandparents about the scope of physical, mental and social consequences of digital technologies on children and youth within the home environment. Also in this survey was a benchmark of how parents perceive the impact of digital technologies on their children’s reading, speaking, math, social skills, behaviour, emotional health and levels of anxiety.

This research assessed the impact of digital technologies on learning and parenting practices at home and further informed the patterns already identified in phase one. Here are some of the highlights from this new phase two research.

At home

  • 85 per cent of parents believe that technology makes it easier to stay in touch with friends and family.
  • 62 per cent of parents feel negatively distracted by digital technologies, and three quarters of them recognize that their technology habits influence those of their children.
  • 45 per cent of parents report that their children have a mobile device with them every night after bed time; 41 per cent of parents state their children never do. The data show the polarization in terms of whether children have their phones with them at night (nocturnal screen time).
  • 60 per cent of parents in this survey indicate that their child’s use of digital technologies has a mostly negative impact on physical activity; 37 per cent suggest it has a negative impact on emotional health; and 30 per cent suggest it has a negative impact on anxiety.

In the classroom

  • 26 per cent of parents believe their child’s use of technology at school is “too much,” with 68 per cent of parents feeling the amount of time their children are using digital technology at school is “about right.”
  • 39 per cent of parents indicate that their child’s use of digital technologies has a mostly positive impact on reading skills; 37 per cent suggest it has a positive effect on math skills.

Future research

Exploring the correlations between the health outcomes reported in this research and technology use across students’ lives will be the work of the GUD project over time. For example, to what extent is there a correlation between students coming to school tired or anxious/depressed and nocturnal screen time? This work is slowly creating a picture of the paradoxical promise and peril of technology and will be used in conversations about how we can live in a digitally saturated era and still be balanced, mindful and — most importantly — present. ❚

An executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and adjunct professor within the faculty of education at the University of Alberta, Phil McRae is the ATA’s expert on technology in education.