With many students now having to learn at home, it’s important for parents to be mindful of the negative effects of spending too much time on screens. Listen as neuroscientist, Dr. Mark Williams explains how to manage learners’ screen time.
Visit Dr. Williams’ website here.
Get in touch with Dr. Mark Williams: firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes.
Steve [Intro]: 00:01 Hello and welcome to the Parent Wellbeing and Student Learning During School Closures Edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. With the extended closing of schools, we as parents have entered into a new territory regarding what we have known as “school learning.” With this and future podcasts, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner.
Steve: 00:34 Learner’s screen time. Just before the COVID-19 closed school doors, sending students home and in most cases going online for school, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Mark Williams, a cognitive neuroscientist from Australia. And at that time, Mark shared with me some of the problems that occur from the amount of time that students and I need to add adults spend on on screen and on and on technology. And he also shared with me some of the research that’s coming out about difficulties connected with learning onscreen. And so I asked Mark if he would return to do a podcast here for parents and to my my great pleasure, he agreed. So welcome, Mark.
Mark : 01:28 Thank you very much, Steve.
Steve: 01:30 Mark, I’m wondering if you could start by just sharing some of the concerns that are arising from the amount of time that students and adults are spending on technology?
Mark: 01:45 Yeah, there’s quite a few that we’ve now discovered. One of the main ones is actually its effect on our attention. So our attention of course is our ability to maintain focus on one thing and not be get distracted by other things. And anybody who’s got a child with attention deficit disorder I do do will tell you that it’s devastating both from a learning perspective and just from a social perspective for a kid to have those issues. But we know that the more time you spend on a screen, the greater the impact it has on your attention. So your ability to mind time, your attention and your ability to actually focus on the one thing and the more likely you are to have attention deficit disorder-like symptoms. And we also know that if a child is put on a screen or given a screen at a younger age, has also got a high correlation or the dollar actually end up with a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder.
Mark: 02:38 So that’s one of the really crucial problems with both being on a screen early in life and being on a screen for long hours during the day. But then we’ve also got increases in anxiety, increases in stress, increases in depression and increases in suicidal tendencies related to number of hours on the screen. And it really doesn’t matter what you’re actually doing on the screen, just being on the screen increases your stress levels, which therefore affects your mental state, which affects your likelihood of having depression and affects the likelihood of having suicidal tendencies. So for kids or for us adults, we should be minimizing it wherever possible.
Steve: 03:17 This is a time where those anxieties and stressors are extra present in in everybody’s life. And then the screen time has the
possibilities of adding to it.
Mark: 03:29 Yes, exactly. We’ve got this extreme stress on everybody. The unknown, what’s going to happen. You know, grandparents getting sick, this virus spreading throughout the world. So we have – and the news feeds that we’re getting constantly. So all of those things of course are having a big impact on our mental health. But then the only way we can be social, the only way we can communicate people is on screens. So we’ve got this, you know, double whammy, which is I think is going to cause a big problem. And we’ve seen that with increase in people calling helplines and so on with problems around mental disorders.
Steve: 04:05 Mark, in the earlier podcast that we did for educators, you shared some of the research that looks at difficulties of learning online. I know one that had jumped out at me, surprisingly, actually to me, was the difference in reading comprehension when I’m studying something on a screen versus studying it from a text. I’m wondering if you’d tell us a little bit more about that and then maybe some of the other areas of study difficulty or learning difficulty.
Mark: 04:39 Yeah, so the actual learning on the screen, there’s been a lot of research in that area and we find very consistently that if you give a child or a teenager or even an adult, either a print out, a paper version of a PDF or you give them the same PDF on a screen and you give them the same amount of time to examine it to go through it and then you test them, there’s poorer performance if they actually learned on a screen versus on a piece of paper. So they’re going to remember more if they learn it on a piece of paper if you give them the same amount of time on both of those. I mean, we know that because of the fact that you don’t have anchors that you can actually remember things by. So when you’re on a screen, everything scrolls up and down so you don’t actually know where you’re at within the PDF or within the book.
Mark: 05:28 Whereas when you’ve got a hard copy, you can see by both the visceral, by actually moving the pages, but also visually you can see where you’re at and the anchors associated with that. You’re on this page or that page. And also you can flip backwards and forwards very easily when it’s in paper, which you can’t do on the screen, you’ve got to scroll back and it’s difficult to find where you were if you actually want to look at something that happened before. So yeah, we do know that there is a big impact on our memory formation when we’re doing it on a screen.
Steve: 05:58 Mark, you’ve just hit something there that I have the need to respond to because I realize the number of times that I’ve read something online and I’m further down in the piece and I want to go back to the – something that I’m recalling and it’s like I have to go back and search the whole thing. I can’t find it. It doesn’t jump out at me. And that never dawned on me until I listened to you now a second time explaining this to me as to what it is that that’s happening.
Mark: 06:32 Yeah, and that’s one of the really crucial things because when you’re, especially when you’re trying to remember something or you’re trying to learn a new concept, you often will flick backwards and forwards. And of course, if you’re using a book, you will remember that it was one page back, but you won’t get that when you’re out actually on a screen.
Steve 2: 06:47 And even where on the page it was. Compared to, I know it’s somewhere there. I’m scrolling, I’m scrolling, and I can’t find it.
Mark: 06:55 Very frustrating. But we also know that when you type, if you, if you’re typing on a keyboard, if you’re typing your notes on a keyboard, each of the presses that you actually make are exactly the same regardless of what letter you’re actually pressing. Whereas when you hand write notes, each of the letters are actually formed differently. So the memory traces that you’re generating are different. So we also know that you actually remember better, significantly better, if you write notes on a piece of paper versus actually typing notes on a computer because of the fact that all the letters are different. And you can also set up anchors on the piece of paper. So I always laugh at the fact that, I always know the best students at the start of the year. I teach neuroscience, I have about 850 students each year, and I always know the best students because they’re the ones that come in, sit at the front of the lecture theater, but also pull out these usually a pencil case full of amazing pens and pencils and colors and all the rest of it. And they have a notepad and they draw on it and they make them and all the rest of it. And they’re all great anchors for them to actually remember what they’re actually noting down. So they’re actually creating their own anchors on their notes. Plus they write really nice notes I can give back to them. Plus they’re remembering a better and they’re always the hardest section students. You can always pick them by their stationary they have. And of course we have that seating knowledge.
Steve: 08:15 That’s so interesting because when I’m in a session like that, I take notes or even now online doing an interview like this, I jot down a note or two and it’s the jotting it down that causes me to remember it. I may not even go have to go back to look, but if I hadn’t written it down, it doesn’t store in my brain the same way.
Mark: 08:36 Yeah, it’s the whole part I say of actually writing down and as you said, most of the time you don’t actually have to get back out of your notes out. I have dozens and dozens of notebooks here that I never go back through, but I keep writing because I know that I’ll actually remember the things and I also know at night, I write down stuff I want to do tomorrow or stuff I though of just before I go inside. I’m not then regurgitating in my brain when I’m trying to go to sleep at night. So it actually helps me in that. So you know, if, if I was, well I am a parent and my kids are working online at the moment and so I try to get them offline and writing notes whenever they actually possibly can. And also at the end of each session, I get them to write notes on what they just learned.
Mark: 09:16 And at the end of the day I get them to write down how their day went, what they did well, what they thought they didn’t do well, so they can improve on the next day and what they’re going to do tomorrow. So they can lay that all aside and they can then just focus on, you know, having dinner, having baths, doing all those sorts of things, getting to bed and actually being able to sleep because they’ve put it all down on paper so they don’t actually have to try and remember it for the next day. It’s a great way to actually get rid of all that information.
Steve: 09:43 That’s a great starter recommendation here for the parents listening. And I’m wondering if you could share a few more and maybe go both directions as to, you know, now that we’re in this spot and as you said, the only way to do school is what I’m getting from the school online, the only way to be social and connect with people is online. So you got some hints for us now and then feel free to go on to when things are opened up and and we get a little more freedom here, what are some of the suggestions you’d have for parents to consider?
Mark: 10:19 Yeah, so at the moment, number one well now and in the future is turn off all your notifications. So the notifications are there to capture your attention and they’re one of the biggest problems with being online. So you want to turn all of those off. I turn off all my notifications. I don’t – even my email, I don’t have the little number one or two or three or whatever. Because with any of those, they’re capturing your attention and when your attention is captured, then you’re not actually thinking about what you’re actually doing. And it’s really bad if you’re actually trying to learn something because we need to consolidate those memories. So if a child or a teen is sitting there and trying to learn something on a screen, and then all of a sudden they notice that they’ve got an email down the bottom, all of a sudden they’ve attended to that email, that little flick, even if they don’t look at it, which means a consolidation for the memory trace that they were just thinking about that that would just work is gone and they’re not going to consolidate that memory.
Mark: 11:14 So they’ve lost whatever they’ve just been doing for the last couple of minutes. So that’s a big one. Turn off all the notifications on all your devices and table down when you’re actually going to do things. So I always have and I give to my kids, a schedule for the day, which is, you know, you can check your email and your chat groups first thing in the morning and you can do it for 15 minutes and then you’ve got to do work. And so you’re not allowed to do all those things during that period. And then at lunchtime you get another half an hour where you can check email and you can check because we don’t need to be contacted all the time unless you’re working in emergency department of course. But otherwise, you know, can go three or four hours without checking our emails and we should do that and kids should actually know that. The other thing is the mobile phones, their smartphones or mobile phones or cell phones, whatever you want to call them should not be on the desk when they’re actually doing their homework. They’re capturing their attention, they’re distracting them. All the notifications should be turned off, again, for those.
Steve: 12:15 I’ve worked with some high school students that actually had to go give it to their parent when they sat down to work because they absolutely could not stop themselves from – even if it didn’t beep, just the, just the visual sight of it was pulling their mind away to wonder in check.
Mark: 12:34 Yeah. And we know with adults who have fully functional frontal lobes, we know that if you have a mobile phone turned off and in your glove box while you’re driving your car, 10% of your attention is on that mobile phone. Even though it’s turned off and it’s in your glove box.
Steve: 12:49 Wow.
Mark: 12:49 Now we have fully functional frontal lobes. If you’re a teenager, you don’t have a fully functional frontal lobe yet. You don’t until you’re about between 23 and 25. So they don’t have that normal capacity to actually control that attention. So it’s going to be far worse for a teenager if their phone is turned off and in a drawer. Now, if it’s sitting there in front of them, they’re not learning anything because they’re in most of their attention is on that device. And it’s because they’re designed to capture our attention.
Mark: 13:18 And Facebook have now admitted that they use intermittent reinforcement to get us addicted to the devices to get us addicted to Facebook. They, you know, hold off on likes. So when you do get the, like it gives you the optimal response so that you will actually check it. And you know, a lot of the tech companies are now admitting that they’re doing things like that. So we need to work against that by turning off all those notifications. And that’s both now and in the future. A really good technique, which has been shown scientifically for many, many years to be very, very good for both adults and kids is what it’s called, the Pomodoro technique. It came from Italy, that’s Pomodoros, the tomato. And in Italy they have these timers, which are tomatoes. But the idea is that you set aside 25 minutes at a time.
Mark: 14:07 You have a timer so you know how long you’ve got left and you use that time to actually do a task. So you set up for 25 minutes and you do one task for that 25 minutes and you don’t do anything else for that 25 minutes. And it increases productivity significantly when you do that. And you do it for the 25 minutes and then you have a five minute break and during that five minutes, especially if you’re trying to learn, you should get up, move around, make a cup of tea, get a drink, do something like that. Don’t get on Facebook, don’t get on anything else, but give yourself that five minutes to consolidate the memories that you’ve just been working on. And then you do it again. And you do that five minute period, 25 minute period, four times with five minute break in each one and then after the four times and you have longer break, you can have up to an hour where you can do other things such as check your Facebook or whatever. And it shows you much more productive. You get more done during that time because when you’ve got the clock and you can see how much time you’ve got left, even if you’re getting a bit stuck or whatever, you look up and go, I’ve only got 10 minutes left, I better really knuckle down or get down whatever I can, I’ve only got – and then as soon as the 25 minutes, you’ve got to be very regimented and when 25 minutes is up, you stop and then you go back to it after you’ve had the five minute break.
Steve: 15:18 So you’re actually learning to focus your behaviors. What I’m taking from that, huh? So you probably get better and better at it the more you do it.
Mark: 15:28 The more you do it, you get much better at it. You get much better at actually predicting how much time you have left without actually looking at the clock. I love this technique. And as I said, there’s lots of research actually showing how, how good it is for your productivity. And you get much better at actually being able to just focus on one task and you become way more innovative. Your thinking around the topic that you’re working on becomes deeper. So you’re actually able to really get deep into the subject and all those things because you’re not being distracted by other things. You don’t have other things on your mind because you know, you’ve only got 25 minutes to really focus on this one thing and then it’s going to be over it and you get a break and you get to do something else. And that’s something I would recommend everybody, adults, teenagers, students actually get into it because it is very, very effective.
Steve: 16:15 Well, Mark, thank you so much. Would you take a moment and tell people your website and I’ll be sure to add your your website and your and your email into the lead-in to this podcast, but mention it here becsome people might be jogging while they’re listening and they’ll remember it.
Mark: 16:34 So it was pretty easy. It’s just www.drmarkwilliams, that’s D, R, M, A, R, K, W, I, double L, I, A, M, S, .com. If you go on there and you just sign up for the newsletter, you get a free PDF, which actually has a whole bunch of tips and tricks for parents with teenagers or for parents with kids. It’s two different ones. And for parents themselves and adults to actually get a better control over their device use.
Steve: 17:03 Well, Mark, thank you so much and I promise I’ll I’ll be back to check in again when when this ends and and gain some more new learning from you.
Mark: 17:15 Thank you Steve, stay safe.
Steve: 17:17 Appreciate it.
Steve [Outro]: 17:19 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.