Simon Vaughan

Screen panic: how much time is too much?

Smart devices are powerful tools that can assist teaching and learning. Each device on its own is a personal assistant, a massive library, media creator, communications hub, language translator and entertainment centre on our desk or right in our hands. 

They can also cause harm. Adults worry about addiction, constant distraction and a technological dystopia full of obscure manipulative algorithms controlled by government or ‘bad guys,’ stranger danger, cyber vulgarity and toxic echo chambers. What are our teens really doing with the smart technology?  How do they cope with it? There is very little research into how our kids are using their devices from their perspectives, particularly when these tools were so heavily relied upon during lockdowns. So, last year, we asked them!

What is a smart device?

A smart device is an electronic tool (typically a watch, phone, tablet, laptop of desktop) connected (primarily) wirelessly to the internet. Smart devices allow users to interface with purpose-built applications to conduct business, communicate, create media, do banking, and more generally, text, email or talk to others in real time.

Our study

In Australia, nearly all adolescents ( 94 out of every 100 14-17 years of age) own a smartphone and many school communities have restricted their use or are exploring bans on phones at school. Teens must navigate rapidly changing cloud-based technology to negotiate their academic and social expectations and stay safe while doing this.

Educational challenges created by the pandemic created the most significant disruption to Australian schools since World War II. Schools became nimble and allowed the use of tools in ways that were not permitted before. Flexible assessment tasks gave students freedom to “figure it out.” Students connecting from home, were collaborating, creating, inventing, and studying from the patio or from the lounge. Parents and carers saw first-hand the pros and cons of the tools’ uses for school and non-school purposes.

Over the past year, we studied over 450 secondary public-school students in a mixed methods research project. The study took place in a capital city in Australia and involved students from 12 secondary schools. We have the initial survey results available now and the full results of the study will be shared as we finish the work later this year. 

How are our kids using their smart devices?

75% of students felt smart technologies improved their lives. This positive outcome was complex and diverse. One participant summed up their view on smart technology as:

The internet is where I spend most of my time. it is what I look at through my art and music, and the way it changed humans fascinates me greatly. it has enabled strange forms of connection from people all over the world and has enabled so much collaboration for me personally.” [sic] –  16 YO Male Year 10

Here’s what we’ve found so far:

  1. 21st century learners are on their screens constantly, learning now involves devices more than ever before. Screen time is up (during and after school) of those responses that were > 4 hours daily, the average time was 6.9 hours and the maximum number given was over 14 hours per day
  2. 89% of participants used their notebook computer device extensively for learning activities at school and more than half also use it for connected learning at home via the schools’ Learning Management System
  3. The phone isn’t a phone and not really viewed as one, only a very small percentage reported using their phones to make calls. It was clear in interpreting the data however, that smartphones are used in multiple ways to support their modern lives. These devices are seen as central to adolescent life. Smartphones are also a major focus of distraction. Our young people know this. They know when they are wasting their time. 
  4. Most young people socialise within friendship groups and have productive coping mechanisms and technical know-how in order to deal issues that may occur. They know how to block suspicious communication, report those interactions the provider and many are discussing these issues with friends, family or trusted school adults at school
  5. Our participants generally believed that there was marginal impact on school performance from their social media interactions (even if there are in the minds of adults); almost 20% reported that social media caused negative distractions and another 20% admitted to constantly checking these platforms and feeling anxious when they didn’t.

Now what?

We have a tricky tightrope to walk. What is the new normal? The 1980s’ guidelines of two hours a day of screen time has not kept pace with technological changes. We could do the following three things:

  1. We have an opportunity for us to tune in to adolescent voices on this issue. We should stay in touch with our own children’s use by talking to them. They want us to know they are trying to be careful, but this smart technology is part of their life.
  2. Parents also want to know how their children are using their devices. We can help and  support them to develop productive coping skills, so they successfully navigate a complex world of ever-evolving smarter technologies. 
  3. We need to model ourselves with our children balancing device time with a healthy lifestyle (particularly bedtime and sleep patterns).

The genie will not go back in the bottle. We can’t “ban” our way to the future as smart tools get smarter; we should trust that our young people, with our informed guidance, will make good choices. The importance of vigilance in using smart tools is crucial, but most of our participants are doing fine in their juggling act in and out of cyberspace. 

From left: John Fischetti is Professor and Pro Vice Chancellor of the College of Human and Social Futures at the University of Newcastle. He teaches and studies in the areas of school transformation and educational leadership. John advocates for school designs that promote student ownership of their own learning Simon Vaughan is a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle. He is a secondary principal and national leader in school innovation. His PhD work is focuses on the potential of smart technology to transform pedagogy. Kylie Shaw is Professor and Dean of Graduate Research at the University of Newcastle. Her research focusses on the doctoral learning journey, future-focused skills and primary school pedagogies. She is a leader in empowering women to undertake and navigate the HDR journey.