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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

Counterbalancing the Screenager Effect

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Teens became increasingly immersed in digital tech during the pandemic. What can educators do to mitigate the potential unhealthy effects?
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Instructional Strategies
Social-emotional learning
Teenagers seated outside on their phones
Credit: Christopher Futcher
Adolescence is a time for exploring one’s identity and branching out into new life experiences under the guidance of trusted adults. However, the expansion of digital technology has radically changed this stage of life and is creating a generation too dependent on personal devices. Technology has moved from a helpful tool to a perceived necessity in adolescents’ lives. It drives everything from social interactions to academics, and the reliance on remote learning and the forced social isolation during COVID-19 has only exasperated this issue. This dependency is taking a toll on adolescent mental health, behaviors, and learning.
Since the pandemic has forced students to rely even more on tech for social interactions and learning, educators need to take this increased use and its implications into account when designing learning strategies and developing a classroom culture. But how does immersion in technology affect student learning and behavior? And what can educators do about it?

A Matter of Attention

Technology certainly has its benefits and was invaluable to allowing students to continue learning safely during the pandemic. But too much of a good thing is never a good thing. It should be no surprise that tech use among teens is growing. Preadolescents’ ownership of smartphones increased from 24 percent to 41 percent from 2015 to 2019, while teen ownership increased from 67 percent to 84 percent at the same time (Rideout & Robb, 2019). In 2018, long before the pandemic hit, researchers Anderson and Jiang (2018) wrote:
Smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95 percent of teens now report they have [one] or access to one. These mobile connections fuel more persistent online activities: 45 percent of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis.
All of this information overload has put a strain on teenagers’ attention spans. In his 2016 book How the Brain Learns, David A. Sousa describes the many effects that a learner’s environment can have on the brain and its ability to retain new information. He notes, “Students can become frustrated or paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of information” available on their ever-present tech devices (p. 285). They are accustomed to reaching for their phones to scroll quickly through a feed, whether on a search engine or social media. If they don’t like a post, they can move past it, avoiding it altogether. This relatively benign behavior becomes a challenge in the context of academics, where the interaction with the content presented is often demanding. The increased time and effort required to concentrate on a difficult math problem or read a complex passage can be daunting.
When Cabarrus County Schools in North Carolina, where I teach, moved to a hybrid model in October 2020, this problem became even more obvious. Teachers were expected to operate class with both virtual and in-person students, promoting interaction between the two as much as possible to simulate a normal classroom. In-person students who still had to participate in online meetings during class switched between screen tabs, trying to listen to the teacher but also scrolling through another class’s Canvas page or playing an online game. I observed that these behaviors increased when students either appeared bored or viewed the content as too difficult. Essentially, virtual learning, hybrid or all online, has made it easier for students to participate in information avoidance and digital multitasking in classrooms.
Yet as Sousa (2016) concludes, multitasking as a skill is a myth. When someone multitasks, it appears as if more information is being processed at one time, but in actuality there is more cognitive loss; the brain simply cannot process that much information at once with such quick changes. Additionally, multitasking while using technology leads to the inability to focus. Students are unable to retain new information or connect to previously learned information because, as the saying goes, too many tabs are open in their brains.
As educators, we must recognize the challenges this increase in technology immersion can present and how it affects learning. A recent report from the Pew Research Center (Anderson, Rainie, & Vogels, 2021) asked experts in various fields to predict the social impacts of COVID-19 in 2025. Repeatedly, these experts cited social isolation and technology dependency as challenges when online learning and teleworking increase. As educators, we know that students learn best with personal interaction, and we know their development thrives on peer interaction. As we move forward in this technology-dependent era, we must consider the effects of prolonged tech use on students and find ways to mitigate them in our classrooms.

Mitigating the Effects of Tech Overuse

We can’t stop the increase of technology use among our students, but we can use different practices and strategies to mitigate the negative effects of it. First, we must understand how tech use affects students’ learning. As a result of the prevalence of technology and the ease with which teenagers can operate its various forms, “Students are essentially becoming gatherers and reporters of information rather than becoming original, curious, and critical thinkers” (Sousa, 2016, p. 285). To address this gap, teachers must design lessons that emphasize critical thinking skills and challenge students to solve unique problems. In my classroom, for example, I have found that assigning students specific roles in collaborative group work encourages engagement with challenging problems. Roles such as housekeeper, lead researcher, and technology facilitator empower students to all be experts in the project. Because these roles promote collaboration in the process of learning, they allow for an equal distribution of expertise; no single student is the sole information gatherer. Therefore, roles that promote collaboration prevent students from just being information gatherers and move them to collective information evaluators within the group discussion.
Teachers also need to organize lessons in ways that capture students’ focus. In a virtual environment, this focus is even more threatened as multiple devices and platforms tempt students to distraction. Teachers should consider moving class announcements to the end of class to get to content more quickly, or making warm-ups more predictive of new content, such as a journal prompt about a theme to be covered in class or a word sort of new vocabulary for the day. Adding reflective opportunities at the end of class discussions and allowing for planning time before projects are other options for effectively organizing lessons to capture students’ focus quickly and efficiently.

As social media and technology use rise, so do mental health issues.

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Finally, and perhaps most important, teachers should help students learn how to process complex texts. With the rise of digital-media consumption and tech-driven multitasking, students are losing their ability to read and analyze complex texts, which impacts all content areas and overall literacy. This is also affecting college readiness for teens, as exemplified in ACT college readiness data: Only 45 percent of 2019 high school graduates met ACT college readiness in reading comprehension. In addition, the science portion of the test, which involves analyzing scientific passages, is generally the lowest-scoring subject, with only 36 percent of high school graduates meeting college readiness (ACT, 2019). As ACT reading texts are pulled from many professional fields such as social sciences, history, and literature, this low achievement rate is concerning in more than just college readiness; it could prevent students from building the literacy skills necessary to complete tasks in professional fields, such as analyzing law briefings and medical studies.
While digital texts may not be the sole cause, they are a contributing factor. Bauerlein (2011) notes that “complex texts pull young minds in one direction, digital diversions in another” (30) and suggests that teachers give students uninterrupted time, such as one hour, of interaction with just print materials. This will be challenging for some students at first, but reading complex texts can provide students with the stamina often lost when consuming short digital texts, such as social media posts, as well as give their bodies a break from staring at a screen.
While access to print versions of complex texts is not always easily available, students can benefit from reading complex texts in digital versions. With this format, students have at their fingertips a plethora of supports. If they don’t know a word, a quick Google search provides definitions, synonyms, and antonyms. Additionally, sites like CommonLit and Newsela provide challenging texts with built-in supports for students as they read, such as annotation tools, in-document definitions, lexile changing options for the teacher, and supplemental materials.

Technology Use and Mental Health

As social media and technology use rise, so do mental health issues. Research indicates that students’ general happiness and life satisfaction declines with more screen time. In one study of 8th and 10th graders, for example, researchers found that students associated non-screen activity with greater happiness, and screen activity with less happiness (Twenge, Martin, & Campbell, 2018). In another study, Twenge et al. (2018) noted a significant increase in depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts in the 2010s, particularly noting that this increase correlated to smartphone ownership and social media use. Furthermore, they found that “adolescents low in in-person social interaction and high in social media use reported the highest levels of depressive symptoms,” indicating that as access to social media increases so too do mental health issues (p. 14).
Social media also, unfortunately, provides higher chances for consuming unhealthy content that can lead to harmful behaviors. According to Nesi and colleagues:
For peer influence, evidence suggests that social media amplifies the speed, scale, and volume of socialization processes around both positive . . . and negative . . . behaviors, and that social media creates changes in the qualitative nature of influence processes that may normalize risky behaviors. (2018, p. 311)
For example, while the social media platform Instagram is typically known as a space for teens to share pictures and pithy hashtags, it also has an online community promoting self-harm using the hashtag #selfharm or #selfharmm (Moreno et al., 2015). In a blog post about how social media affects teenagers, Rachel Ehmke writes:
The other big danger that comes from kids communicating more indirectly is that it has gotten easier to be cruel . . . social media is teaching them to . . . disagree in ways that are more extreme and do jeopardize relationship[s]. (nd)
Essentially, social media is an avenue in which typically negative behaviors have little to no consequences on the teenager behind the behavior because it can be anonymous, challenging to monitor, and not readily available for intervention by schools.
With the potential for increased mental health struggles in adolescents because of their high use of social media and immediate access to technology, teachers must make the environment of their classrooms more emotionally safe. Emotions are powerful when it comes to learning. Just as senses can improve learning, emotions can enhance or inhibit learning (Sousa, 2016). A positive emotion can anchor information to a memory, but a negative emotion can alter or prevent learning from occurring. If students fear or are not confident enough to take the risks involved with learning, they will avoid the learning process altogether.

Reading Complex Texts

Reading complex texts can provide students with the stamina often lost when consuming social media posts, as well as give their bodies a break from staring at a screen.

Part of a safe classroom is knowing there is a circle of support around the student. Golberstein, Wen, and Miller (2020) recognize that schools provide many supports for mental health but further recommend a model that combines community supports and treatments with that of schools, such as readily available counseling. This model, particularly with the availability of community mental health experts, would provide continuity of treatment and consistency of support in and out of school, mitigating mental health risks and preventing mental health crises, especially in the case of a future school closure due to unforeseen circumstances like COVID-19. Such a model would streamline supports by providing multiple options for treatment outside of the school building.
In addition to improving in-person supports, educators can ensure that virtual learning is a safe and supportive space for teens. One 2021 report showed that the switch to online learning did not have a significant effect on mental health unless students experienced problems such as technology difficulties, misunderstanding content, lack of motivation, or being unable to ask for help from the teacher (Magson et al., 2020). This is significant for educators because it presents the opportunity to mitigate mental health struggles by adapting asynchronous classes to be more streamlined with synchronous or hybrid classes. This may include:
  • Inviting struggling students into scheduled tutoring.
  • Holding office hours.
  • Recording lessons and posting them later for students who have technology issues.
These approaches are an opportunity to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students. If students know these supports are in place, they will feel more secure in their education and less anxious that they are missing something, boosting both their content retention and their mental health.
Finally, educators must shift focus back toward a whole child approach to education. Content standards are important, but educators need to recognize that teaching the whole child promotes more than just academic understanding—it develops socially and emotionally strong people. Teachers can evaluate their lessons, analyzing the wording of problems, chosen texts, or thematic units for inclusion of social, emotional, and empathetic development. Some examples could include:
  • Changing math problems to analyze data that provides multiple perspectives on ethical issues.
  • Teaching young adult literature alongside canonical texts.
  • Providing extension activities that allow students opportunities for community involvement tied to their coursework.

Regaining Skills

While many positives exist for technology, educators must recognize the competing negative effects and use their curricula and classrooms to help students regain the skills being lost to immersion in digital technology. With specific strategies and an emotionally supportive classroom environment, teachers can give teenagers the tools and encouragement they need to use technology well.

Reflect & Discuss

How has teen overreliance on technology affected learning in your classroom?

What can you do as an educator to help mitigate the negative effects of student tech use?


ACT. (2019). Condition of college and career readiness 2019. National ACT.

Anderson, J., Rainie, L., & Vogels, E.A. (2021). Experts say the ‘new normal’ in 2025 will be far more tech-driven, presenting more big challenges. Pew Research Center.

Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018). Teens, social media, and technology 2018. Pew Research Center.

Bauerlein, M. (2011). Too dumb for complex texts? Educational Leadership, 68(5), 28–33.

Ehmke, R. (n.d.) How using social media affects teenagers. Child Mind Institute.

Golberstein, E., Wen, H., & Miller, B. F. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and mental health for children and adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, 17(4), 819–820.

Magson, N. R., Freeman, J. Y. A., Rapee, R. M., Richardson, C. E., Oar, E. L., & Fardouly, J. (2020). Risk and protective factors for prospective changes in adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 50, 44–57.

Moreno, M., Ton, A., Selkie, E., & Evans, Y. (2015). Secret society 123: Understanding the language of self-harm on Instagram. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58, 78–84.

Nesi, J., Choukas-Bradley, S., & Prinstein, M. J. (2018). Transformation of adolescent peer relations in the social media context: Part 2 – Application to peer group processes and future directions for research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 21, 295–319.

Sousa, D. A. (2016). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rideout, V., & Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. Common Sense Media.

Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. L. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.

Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology. American Psychological Association, 18(6), 765–780.

Julie Loukos teaches English at Cabarrus Early College of Technology in North Carolina. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and will graduate with her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in December 2021.

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