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4 Steps towards digital wellness for students

The media loves sensational tech stories. Remember that one where young people were growing “horns” on their skulls because of their phones? That seems plausible, right? Except that it was based on a faulty study, which essentially makes that fake news.

This is just one example of the many articles that warn us of the latest shocking discoveries about the dangers of technology. In reality, our fixation on bad news makes us overlook the fact that we need more evidence-based research before declaring phones a health hazard. As Oxford professors put it, “The debate over digital technology and young people needs less shock and more substance”.

However, we can’t ignore the extent of technology use in our lives. According to the Pew Research Center, “Fully 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online almost constantly.” This type of data can help educators, parents, or policymakers better understand how students interact with technology, particularly how to create a healthy relationship with it.

By this time you might be wondering: what does a healthy relationship with technology look like? What is digital wellness? There are many good definitions out there, but my favorite comes from Jisc, a UK-based not-for-profit company:

The capacity to look after personal health, safety, relationships and work-life balance in digital settings; to use digital tools in pursuit of personal goals (eg health and fitness) and to participate in social and community activities; to act safely and responsibly in digital environments; to negotiate and resolve conflict; to manage digital workload, overload and distraction; to act with concern for the human and natural environment when using digital tools.

Why we need digital wellness in schools

I strongly believe that we need more research on this matter. Nevertheless, if there is a potential negative impact of excessive screen time, educators can find ways to manage it. For example, teachers should be aware of how to create a balance between using devices in the classroom and engaging in offline activities.

The most obvious problems come in the form of eye strain or issues associated with sitting for too long. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a maximum of two hours of sedentary screen time per day.

It appears that a lot of screen time is associated with poorer sleep quality and possibly a lower performance at school as a result. At the same time, social media platforms can have a good or bad impact on mental health depending on how they are used. Cyberbullying is a major issue that needs quick intervention.

Other issues are a lack of online safety and low digital literacy skills. While they might be using edtech safely, students might still be struggling with managing their time when interacting with technology at home.

Read more: Digital literacy vs. Computer literacy: Students need to develop both

What teachers need to know before taking on a digital wellness initiative

If you are concerned about these issues, you are not alone. Schools have already set an example by creating their own digital wellness initiatives. Hilliard City Schools in Columbus, Ohio are helping students create a balance at school and at home. Washington University is encouraging students to take control of their life online.

ISTE also has great standards for students, and Common Sense Education is helping teachers by creating a comprehensive K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum.

Keeping these wonderful resources in mind, here is what teachers need to know before launching their own initiatives:

Habits are not changed overnight

Just because you know that spending many hours on your phone is bad is not going to make you stop - or make teens want to take more frequent breaks. In fact, we have extensive knowledge of how things can be potentially bad for us, yet we still do those things all the time. Yale professors Laurie R. Santos and Tamar Gendler call this the G.I Joe Fallacy. As the popular cartoon character always says, “Knowing is half the battle.” This is far from the truth. Teaching the theory of digital wellbeing is just the first step, not the whole lesson.

Parents can be involved

Back when I was in elementary school, I could only access the internet during Computer class. Nowadays, very young children can have their own tablets. The accessibility of technology means that they mostly learn about it at home and pick up on how their family members interact with technology. It also appears that more and more adults are struggling with their own digital wellbeing. This tells us that finding a balance is hard even when you know how to regulate your emotions and delay gratification. Demanding instant change from children, teenagers, and even young adults is too much, especially if we don’t model positive behavior ourselves. Patience is key and so is good school-family communication.

Teach efficient technology use

As adults, we have two major assumptions. First, we assume that students are digital natives who just get everything instantly so there is no need to teach them how to use technology. Second, technology comes in many forms and we tend to lump it all together when we talk about it. In reality, the quality of the tools and devices matters. Using an educational app for one hour per day is far more valuable than something that offers just entertainment. Technology might make students more productive if used for homework. It can also be addictive because it was created that way, so there needs to be a limit.

Read more: Top 7 education apps for the classroom

Developing a framework for digital wellness

The concept of digital wellness is in its early stages. Schools are starting to catch up, albeit slowly. Teachers that want to implement a digital wellness initiative can start doing so in their classrooms. Here are the four main areas to focus on, along with activities that are easy to do:

1. Learning about technology at home

As students learn by example, teachers know how important it is for them to have a balanced tech routine at home. Educators can share a guide for parents on setting boundaries, setting an example, or how to use parental controls on devices. Communicate these things directly if you are using an LMS that has parent accounts. Otherwise, use email or meetings as an opportunity to talk to parents about the impact of excessive screen time.

Activity suggestion:

Create a device-free dinner time challenge. Students need to spend at least a week without devices at dinner, and parents can get involved as well. Questions to ask:

  • How was the experience?
  • What did you find out about someone else’s day?
  • How do you feel when someone is looking at their phone during a conversation?
  • What other device-free activities would you want to do?

2. Assuming responsibility

As defined by Intel, cyber responsibility is being accountable for your online habits. Get to know how your students interact with technology in general. You might be surprised to see how many of them don’t understand the impact screen time has — after all, this is part of their normal, day-to-day life. Students need to learn when it is appropriate to use them, both in class and at home.

For teens, it is more complicated as they need to understand that their right to own a device also implies a lot of responsibility. For example, students need to learn early on about copyright and know how to give credit for someone else’s work. They need to recognize reliable sources of information and use them appropriately. It is also crucial to form the habit of tracking how much time they spend online and what they spend it on.

Read more: 5 Aspects of digital citizenship students must be aware of

Activity suggestion:

Encourage students to use an app to track how many hours of screen time they accumulate during a week. Then, challenge students to spend less time on their devices or take a one-week break from their most used app. Questions to ask:

  • How did you feel during the break?
  • Did you notice any improvements in sleep, socialization, etc.?
  • How much time did you spend without social media? Why did you stop or continue with the challenge?

3. Good online behavior

Good behavior should extend to the virtual world as well. It is an essential aspect of digital citizenship. Talk to students about the reasons why social norms are sometimes broken online. For example, if you have created an online forum for discussing class topics, and students start leaving off-topic comments, it is a great opportunity to talk about online rules and why they are important.

They should also identify when people display concerning behaviors online and how to minimize interactions with them (don't feed the trolls!). It is important to understand online etiquette, be aware of their digital footprint (e.g everything you do stays online forever), and how to post only appropriate images or content.

Read more: 5 Digital collaboration skills every student needs to master

Activity suggestion:

Google’s Be Internet Awesome: Mind your tone activity is a great exercise for interpreting emotions and practicing critical thinking in online interactions. Students should be able to carefully choose their words and which conversations are best to be had offline.

Present students with a situation in which they are communicating with different friends. Write messages such as “That’s so cool”, “Whatever” and “I’m so mad at you”. Read them out loud in a specific tone of voice. Questions to ask:

  • How might these come across to other people?
  • How would you communicate these feelings differently?
  • How would you respond so as to not affect your friendship?

4. Staying safe online

Needless to say, online safety is a major concern for everyone. Ideally, younger children would be supervised by an adult at all times. However, preteens and teens are sometimes not aware of the risks or what constitutes unsafe behavior. This includes browsing malicious sites that can install malware, falling for online scams and frauds, giving out personal information, and not being aware of how their data is tracked.

Read more: Teaching cybersecurity to your students: 3 basic tips

Activity suggestion:

Write on a whiteboard or create a presentation with different situations such as “Someone is asking you for your home address” or “A stranger tries to befriend you on social media.'' Let students brainstorm on what they would do in each case and even write down the best solutions. Questions to ask:

  • When should you tell a parent/teacher?
  • When is it appropriate to share photos?
  • Do you know how to set privacy settings on your favorite social media platform?

Teaching digital wellness

Excessive screen time and a lack of responsibility for time spent online are detrimental to students’ digital wellbeing. Schools can take charge and teach their students how to build better habits, whether it is by teaching internet etiquette or encouraging parents to set boundaries.

In the end, digital wellness is about learning how to spend quality and not quantity time. The end goal is a healthier relationship with technology that will serve them for a lifetime, not just during classroom hours.