Published on August 29th, 2017 | from CAMH

Q&A: Tech use in schools

As we get ready for back to school, we spoke to Lisa Pont, a Social Worker at CAMH’s Problem Gambling and Technology Use service and asked a few questions about what tech use for youth is like these days. The Problem Gambling and Technology Use service at CAMH sees youth between the ages of 16-24.

What are symptoms or events that should prompt a parent to seek professional help for their child’s tech overuse? How will people know that too much is too much?

The research indicates that young people under the age of 16 are also facing challenges with cellphone use and other technology. Parents often seek professional help when they see their child having problems with sleep, school, poorer mental and physical health and withdrawal from other activities, including family life.

Screentime recommendations for this age group are low (1-2 hours a day) and likely not realistic for most people. We encourage parents and youth to think about balance and how much time they need to do other things that are important such as school, work, sleep, hygiene, offline socializing, hobbies, exercise etc. The other thing to focus on when trying to decide how much time is too much is whether there is any negative impact as a result of use (such as the reasons listed above and family conflict about the issue).

Can you briefly describe what it’s like for a youth in schools today?

Many schools have Wi-fi and do not have rules around cell phone use. This can be very distracting for youth using their phones in class and those around them. It would be very tempting to use your phone in class if you have access to the Internet and you are receiving alerts that you have a text, email or contact on social media. It is easier for people to focus on school work and learning when they are not distracted by technology that is unrelated to the topic being discussed in class.

Some schools are deciding to block access to certain sites like Instagram, Netflix and Snapchat on their WiFi networks. Are there ways for schools and other institutions to work smartphones into their curriculum or teach proper use?

I think one main reason the school limited access to these sites was because it was interfering with the data they needed to do their business. It may have a secondary impact of reducing visits to those sites for students who don’t have data or don’t want to use it up which may not be a bad thing. If parents are noticing that more data is being used when they look at the phone bill, that may give them some information to determine whether they want to set some limits about when and how much data gets used.

I think discussions about balanced technology use, positive digital citizenship and cybersafety would be very beneficial in schools and in homes.  I think having access to phones during breaks makes sense but keeping them out of classrooms due to the high level of distraction they create that impedes learning.  If they are being used in class for a specific purpose, it should be clear and limited to that particular project.  These parameters would role model healthy balanced technology use.

What are some tips for parents who want to model proper behaviour to their kids? How do you enforce rules over digital content?

I think it is really important to first and foremost, foster a good relationship with your child based on honest, open, respectful communication that sets the stage for discussions about safe technology use.  In addition to discussing safe use, parents can keep technology in a shared space in the house, keep tech out of bedrooms, block inappropriate sites and/or monitor their child’s use.  Typically, if a young person has displayed healthy, safe tech use, more freedom can be given as they get older.

Role modelling is key for parents who want to teach their kids healthy, balanced tech use.  It could mean having ‘tech free’ time with the family, having no tech at meal times and parents having other hobbies and interests and introducing their kids to offline activities.

Enforcing rules over digital content and use in general can be challenging for parents. It can be helpful for parents to communicate their expectations about their child’s tech use including content and amount.  It is important that parents are aware of what content their child is interacting with and discuss risks and benefits. Once you have established what acceptable content is, you can either block sites or monitor use as the parent sees fit.

It is important to keep in mind that most rules are not ‘fool proof’ and decisions around rules and their enforcement depends on the child and the family. Parents will need to decide what consequences they are going to make if rules are not followed and if the child is older, it can be very helpful to get their input in the discussion.

Keep in mind that adolescence is a time of identity development and exploration and creating a very restrictive technological environment may not be the best answer in every situation.

What are some of the positives of tech use in youth? How can we encourage positive development of tech skills?

I am really glad you asked that question. Tech is not going anywhere and it can offer many benefits including identity exploration, information, entertainment and support.  Based on the ubiquity of technology and it’s integration in all of our lives, I would not be concerned about children not developing ‘tech skills’.

In order to avoid ‘tech zombies’, we all need to strive for balance, reflect on the benefits of our tech use in terms of what, when, why and how we use technology and provide role modelling and guidance for younger people to use technology in a healthy way. In other words, “what is the added value that this app, game or site or activity is bringing to my life?” and “is this activity replacing other things I need and want to do?”

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