In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Dr. Mark Williams to look at the effects of students spending too much time on devices.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:52 A look at student screen time. Today on our podcast, we are joined by Dr. Mark Williams, a professor of cognitive neuroscience from Australia. And I “met” Mark on LinkedIn. I read a couple of his articles and watch some of his interviews online and I wanted to ask him to join us as I know that a lot of my work observing in classrooms, we frequently deal with what it is we’re asking students to do online and and onscreen. So his thoughts and ideas were intriguing to me and I wanted to create an opportunity for him to share them with my listeners. So Mark, I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about your cognitive neuroscience background and what led you to your focus on screen time with students.
Mark: 01:50 Okay. Thank you Stephen. So I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. I’m a vision scientist by heart and that’s where I started off. Interestingly, I was at MIT as a research fellow when the first smartphone came out. So it was a collaboration between Apple and AT&T, as you probably know. And they developed the Apple phone, the first one, and it was released in 2007. And I looked on at that with astonishment at how quickly people took up the smartphone and how quickly it became part of people’s lives. Now, I didn’t sort of think more about it until more recently when I had children and they wanted to be on iPads and wanted to be on computers and I was concerned about it. And when they started school I got even more concerned about it. The principal at the school where they started was really interested in my research and so we had a few discussions and that’s when I really got more into what actually was going on. And how the screens are actually impacting their lives.
Mark: 02:57 And especially in the learning setting, especially when we were talking about, you know, kids – some schools now are bringing in, bring your own devices as young as seven and eight year olds here in Australia. And that really worries me because the research that’s now coming out, coming out from NIH in the US and from a big research center here in Australia and has actually been done for quite a while now over some of the European States is really suggesting that we’re not doing the best we can when it comes to screen time with kids. There’s quite a bit of research has been coming out from a couple of the European groups where what they do is they either give their students a PDF, a paper version of the PDF of a document or they give them the same PDF but on a laptop or on an iPad and they give them exactly the same amount of time to study that document.
Mark: 03:52 And then they test them. And they test them either on paper or they test them on a screen and they’ve shown that it depends on how long they give the students to learn the document. But there always is a detriment in their performance when they are given it on a screen as opposed to given it on paper. And there’s always an increase in cortisol levels, which means that these students are much more stressed when they try to learn whatever it happens to be on a screen compared to when they learn it on paper. So not only are they not remembering it as well, but they’re also getting more stressed when they’re actually using the screen. Now we know from many, many years of psychology and learning that we don’t learn things in isolation. So this idea of being able to route learn things is actually incorrect.
Mark: 04:41 We actually learn things that when we associate with them or we link them to other things or other memories that we are memory traces that we already have. Now, if you’re learning something on a device, there’s not that ability to actually link it to other things. So to actually use anchors. So when you learn something in a textbook, for example, you might remember a paragraph based on the fact that it’s just below a particular figure or it’s on the left hand side of the page as opposed to the right hand side of the page or it was just after I turned a page. Now you don’t get those cues when you’re actually on a device because it just scrolls up and down. The whole screen just scrolls up and down. So the reason none of those links are those anchors that you can actually use to remember – to form good memory traces of what you’re actually trying to remember. Which is a real issue for the devices.
Mark: 05:32 It also seems that we have this cognizance of information that’s on a screen as being temporary. So it’s not been as meaningful as something that’s actually real.
Steve: 05:43 Wow.
Mark: 05:43 So there’s also been studies showing that if a teacher actually stands up and writes on a Blackboard, then the students actually see that as a teacher making an effort to actually do that. Whereas if they just flick it up onto a smart board, then there’s no effort in that. And so therefore the kids don’t actually put any real value in that. And so they’re less likely to actually remember it. Or if we read something, we know that people read a lot quicker when they read on screens, but they’re not actually remembering as much of the information because they don’t see it as permanent or as meaningful when it’s on a screen.
Steve: 06:16 So is the suggestion there that the teacher’s action actually somehow signals a greater importance the information is and then the students tune in on it more closely?
Mark: 06:29 Yeah, that’s correct. So the fact that the teacher puts value in it and is actually willing to get up and ride it which is, you know, obviously takes effort. Yeah. It’s actually more important than just pushing a button and it actually coming up on the screen.
Steve: 06:45 Wow. Wow. The reason I’m somewhat laughing is, you know, I’m far along in my career here and I was I was working observing in teacher’s classrooms when the smart boards first came out. And I jokingly tell the story of sitting in kindergarten classrooms where these kids are sitting crisscross legs on the floor, waiting for their turn one at a time to be able to go smartboard. I mean, all the kids were [inaudible] teacher direction so that they could get called on to go do that. And I remember sitting in the back of the room thinking, “Oh my God, we need to bring worksheets back.” You know, I was the guy who was totally opposed to worksheets and until I realized at least with a worksheet, a kid would have done 25 examples during that time. And instead he sat there and waited his turn to do one. But the magic a smartboard was was capturing his attention. I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about the age of students and how schools should be looking at technology and learning on screen. How’s it get impacted as students age?
Mark: 08:01 Okay, so we know that when kids are initially starting to read, there’s some lovely studies coming out from the NIH now, the kids that actually learn as three year olds, four year olds, five year olds, six year olds to read on a screen as opposed to on a piece of paper, they have less white matter tracks. So the formation of the white matter tracks, which is really important for us to understand both the words that we’re reading, but also the conceptual understanding of those words. So you know, connecting left brain to right brain if you like. Those connections are far less if a child actually learns on a device on a screen as opposed to on paper. So kids, you know, when they’re first learning reading should be doing it on paper according to all that research and shouldn’t be learning on screens, which is something we really need to think about because there’s a lot of reading apps now, which you know, a lot of schools are using.
Mark: 08:57 So in the early years, yeah you definitely should be using paper. Personally, I don’t see any reason why a child who’s in primary school that is, well here in Australia, that’s from about age 6 through to about age 12, there’s no reason why a kid at those ages should actually be on a device or be on a screen. We know that they’re going to remember far more if they actually take notes, if they actually write notes as opposed to actually are on a screen. So they should be learning how to take notes. And I think that’s a really formative time for kids to actually learn how to take notes well, that is with pen and paper. And so during those years I wouldn’t have the kids on devices and not until I actually get to high school what I actually introduced the devices. And even then, I would limit the amount of time they actually spend on devices because we do know that it’s addictive and there’s a lot of research now showing that it is addictive, it does cause higher stress levels.
Mark: 09:53 So when kids are actually on these devices, you get a high cortisone levels and that’s of course because of the blue light, but that’s also because of the association that they have with the other things that they do on their devices. So if the kids playing games on the devices after school, if they’re into gaming, they’re going to have stress levels because of that. And then when they get on these devices, when they’re at school, all those memories of course come back. We have associations between those things and so they’re going to get stressed again because of that. Or if they’re on social media and of course the issues that are around social media. Then again, when they’re on the devices at school, all of those associations are going to come up again and so they’re going to be more stressed when they’re actually on their devices.
Mark: 10:34 So you’re increasing their stress levels when on the devices. The other big issue of course is the attentional effects. So the tech companies are fantastic capturing our attention. They have little bouncing things that boing and buzz and and they have little numbers will come up and all the rest of it, so they’re really good at capturing our attention, which means that you’re not actually attending to the teachers and that doesn’t really matter whether you’re talking about the phone in the pocket or you’re talking about the iPad on the table. We know that around about 10% of your attention whenever you have one of those devices near you is being directed to that device when it’s not actually pinging or buzzing or doing any of those things. So you’re losing about 10% of your attention, which is about equivalent to having one glass of alcohol. So kids, if they’ve got those devices in the classroom, they’re equivalent to being about having one glass of alcohol during that class.
Mark: 11:30 If of course those things ping or if there is a buzz or if they notice a flashing light, then that of course increases the attention or attraction of those things increases dramatically from that point on. Now all that research has been done with adults who have big frontal lobes that are actually working. The big problem is that with teenagers, their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed yet and they don’t fully develop until they’re 25 which is of course why we restrict alcohol and so on to teenagers and which is why they do the crazy things that they do. And so we know that’s the effect in an adult, it’s going to be far worse in a teenager. We haven’t seen a lot of that research. Not a lot of that research has come out yet, but if it’s that bad in an adult, it’s going to be far worse in teenagers.
Mark: 12:14 So even having these devices in the room and then are they even using them is actually drawing their attention away from the teacher away from what they’re actually trying to learn and on those devices that we don’t want them attending to at that time. So to me, I think one of the things I’m really – I push, and when I spend time in schools, I talked to the schools about, is having rooms that are separate where all the devices are, where all the computers and stuff are, where they can actually go and treat using the devices as you would treat physical education or as you would treat music, where there’s a period of time, an hour or two hours once a week where the kids go there and learn the things that they actually need to learn for a future life where there is going to be technology but they don’t need to be on them every day. And you don’t want them in the classroom when they are learning geography or when they’re learning English or when they’re learning maths because it’s going to be attracting their attention. So you want rooms that are separate. The old IT rooms where they can go and they can have a great time, but then they can leave those and then concentrate on the teacher and concentrate on what they’re actually doing when they’re doing all those other subjects that are so important for them to learn.
Steve: 13:26 As I looked through your website and read some of your blogs, it was just striking me that we know that we’ve got a problem with kids over use and over time spent on screens. I’ve got two of my own grandkids and so as parents, we’re struggling with how to set the right guidelines and then I, you know, hadn’t done the audition in my head of how much time was the student spending before they got home from school because the school was putting you on a device and then the thought that the school is sending you home with homework that puts you back on the device. So it just continude the escalation of each activity into the next. I noticed also that you had a note on your blog about smartphone addiction and I’ve been seeing more of that for adults as a critical issue today. I wonder if you want to take a moment or two to talk about that.
Mark: 14:34 Yes. I find it ironic that this device that was going to give us all this more free time and allow us to work remotely and so on and it’s – we’re working more at longer hours. We’re more connected to the workplace than we’ve ever been in the past. We’re answering emails, you know, 14, 15 hours a day rather than just when we’re actually at work. The smartphone addiction I think, or cell phone addiction is a real concern. We’ve got now, in several studies now in the U S have shown that college students now have – about 90% of college students have what’s called, phantom buzz syndrome. So they feel a buzz on their leg even though theit phones aren’t actually ringing. So, you know, they’ve got their phone set to buzz and they’ve got this physical addiction now where they’ll actually get the buzz on their leg even though it’s not actually ringing.
Mark: 15:28 And there’s a colleague of mine in Arizona, Arizona State, who took a whole bunch of college students out into the desert, spent four days out in the desert and they were still getting these Phantom buzz syndromes on their leg even though they had no phone reception. So I mean that is a big, big problem. But I mean, another big problem, I have a talk that I do called Smart Phones Are Making Us Dumb, which talks about all the aspects or all the abilities that we have, or we did have that we’re now giving up to the smartphone. And of course we know from neuroplasticity that, you know, you use it or you lose it. So all these abilities that we’re now not using, we are actually – are atrophied and we’re losing some of these abilities.
Mark: 16:10 So for example, just using the apps on your phone to get around. We know that by using those, you don’t remember where you’ve been, but you’re also not exercising your parahippocampal gyrus, the area of your brain, which is involved in wayfinding which means that that area is actually atrophying, which means that you won’t be able to find your way so well in the future. But there’s also a bigger problem, which is that our episodic memory, so the memory of who we are and where we’ve been and what was done and the people we love and all those things of our day to day lives is actually intrinsically linked to the parahippocampal gyrus, to that area, which actually finds our way. So we remember where we’ve been and then we remember what we’ve done there. Those two things are intrinsically linked.
Mark: 17:00 So if we’re not actually remembering how we got there, we’re not remembering as we what we’ve actually done there. So we’re losing that memory of who we are and where we’ve been and all the things that have happened while we were there, which is a really scary aspect to it. But then there’s lots of other things. I don’t know the last time I’ve actually seen a teenager at a coffee shop actually add something up in their head. Whenever the register doesn’t work, the first thing they do is pull out their phone to do simple calculations. And also even deciding where you’re going to go. You know, I see people, you know, leave the movie theater and say, “Oh, let’s go to a restaurant or let’s go to a bar or what are we going to do next?” And the first thing they’ll do is Google it.
Mark: 17:45 And of course we have this perception that that’s giving us more choice. But of course it’s giving us less choice because whenever you use Google or you use any other app on the phone, it’s got algorithms behind it which are deciding on the choices that it thinks you actually would like to make. And of course there’s companies behind there who have been been ranked higher on those search engines. So your choices are actually being limited by the fact that you’re actually looking on the phone. And there’s a lot of research now showing that our choices and what we actually do is becoming much more limited because of the fact we’re using those phones. So we’re not actually exploring the world as much as we used to. And then of course we no longer have arguments. We used to go to the, well, we call it the pub here, the hotel.
Mark: 18:33 And we used to have arguments about so and so did that or so and so I’ve had so many, you know, points in blah, blah, blah. And you’d argue that for hours and hours, nobody does that anymore. You know, if there’s ever a discussion, it’s always let’s Google it. And of course, remembering things like that, you need to actually reinforce them by trying to remember them. And by trying to remember them, you’re actually reinforcing them so that you will remember them later on. But we’re not doing any of that anymore. So these memory centers in our brains aren’t being exercised the way they need to be exercised because we’ve got these devices that’ll give us the information straight away. So, yeah, and of course just being able to converse.Wwe need to be able to converse and we’re not conversing the way we used to converse because of the fact that we Google everything.
Mark: 19:21 So yeah, the whole smartphone problem, I think it is a problem. I think we’re also not socializing as much as we used to. There’s a great study showing teenagers 15 years ago. If you ask them how many people in their lives do they have that they could call upon who aren’t a close relative? 15 years ago, I think it was around about seven. If you ask teenagers today, most of them will say one or two. So, you know, we don’t have those close friendships or those close relationships anymore because of the fact that we spend all our time on our device. And I know even myself, you know, I’ll be somewhere, I’ll be at a cafe or, or I’ll be at a work function and all of a sudden somebody will go, Oh, I’m going to the bathroom or I’m going to get a drink. And my first reaction is also to pull out my phone and look at it because it makes it look as though I’m actually doing something rather than standing there and just talking to somebody else. And you see that constantly. People pick up the phone and look at it rather than actually look at someone else and actually talk to a stranger. We need to talk to strangers occasionally.
Steve: 20:28 Well, Mark, I really appreciate you spending the time with us here. I have always respected the complexity of being a teacher and working in education and you’ve just added another whole level of complexity for me and the kinds of thinking that we as classroom teachers as well as school administrators, decision makers, need to keep in the forefront.
Mark: 20:59 Thank you very much, Stephen.
Steve: 21:01 Thank you. Have a great day.
Mark: 21:02 You too.
Steve [Outro]: 21:04 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.