Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age

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Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age
A growing body of research is emerging to show the detrimental impacts of the saturation of cell phones, text messaging, and laptops on people's attention spans, learning abilities, social and communications skills, and overall mental health. These findings also have relevance for our thinking about broader social issues such as social cohesion, class and racial polarization, and social movements.

The term "Technostress" refers to an increasingly common experience with negative health implications. People "feel compulsive about being connected and sharing constant updates, feel forced to respond to work-related information in real-time, and engage in almost habitual multi-tasking. They feel compelled to work faster because information flows faster, and have little time to spend on sustained thinking and creative analysis."

More and more people are taking occasional "digital detox" breaks to improve their concentration, performance, relationships, and overall health.

The following links provide resources for critical reflection on the uses of technology and its effects on learning, attention, productivity, and mental health.


Selected References

Learning, Memory, and Productivity

How is Technology and the Quest for Success Affecting Society?

Mental Health, Social Well-Being and Anxiety

  • The Sad State of Happiness in the United States and the Role of Digital Media World Happiness Report 2019, Jean M. Twenge
  • Addiction and Unhappiness in America Jeffrey Sachs. "My argument is that the U.S. is suffering an epidemic of addictions [including to social media], and that these addictions are leaving a rising portion of American society unhappy and a rising number clinically depressed."
  • Is social media to blame for the worsening mental health of teenage girls? The Conversation August 2016
  • Stress and anxiety in the digital age: The dark side of technology
  • My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation - The Atlantic
  • "Social Media, Screen Time, and Young People's Mental Health The Lancet Editorial| Volume 393, ISSUE 10172, P611, February 16, 2019. "Without leadership from the health community, we risk not protecting—or worse, harming—our greatest asset: the future generation's mental health. As per the speed with which young people adopt social media, the evidence is also moving very quickly, and by the time frameworks are imposed, they might be obsolete to young users who have already left those particular digital platforms behind. Our understanding of the benefits, harms, and risks of our rapidly changing digital landscape is sorely lacking."
  • Death of the private self: how fifteen years of Facebook changed the human condition The Guardian January 31, 2019. "Facebook age marks a break from traditional human behaviour in key aspect. In the past, we could regularly take a break from acting, and revert to some sense of our private, authentic selves. Now, as we constantly prod at our smartphones and feel the pull of their addictive apps, when does the performing ever stop?"
  • The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, addresses the intersecting dynamics that have created a more polarized society, focusing on how changing parenting styles, university practices that reinforce "overparenting" tendencies, and changes in the larger technological and physical environments affect young people's well-being and their ability to confront the critical challenges of our day. [More resources at authors' website thecoddling.com.
  • Podcast: “A Threat to Democracy? What Social Media has Done to us” NPR On Point November 27, 2019. Are social networks driving us into partisan factions at the expense of the common good? We look at social media and democracy. Jonathan Haidt, Social Psychologist and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind and Sherry Turkle, Social Psychologist at MIT, author of Reclaiming Conversation.
    • “If you don’t teach your children how to be alone, you are only teaching them to be lonely.” That is, by failing to restrict children’s use of digital technology, parents are not enabling them to develop important lessons about themselves and skills at building rewarding friendships. (Dr. Sherry Turkle)
  • "Snowplow Parents: How Parents are Robbing their Children of Adulthood." The 2019 scandal surrounding campus admissions reveals the implications of the broader problem of growing and related competition in our educational and labor markets. Young people have increasingly been socialized into constant high-stakes testing and competition to get into the best schools, in preparation for an increasingly competitive work environment. But are they better prepared for life as adults in a world that faces critically urgent challenges?

Resources for Addressing Perfectionism (UNSW Sydney)
More College Students Seem to Be Majoring in Perfectionism New York Times
Resources to address challenges of college perfectionism and psychological health

Lessons on digital technology, privacy, corporate concentration, and democracy/ social conflicts:

Professional Considerations and Interventions
AAUP’s Education Not Privatization toolkit from our One Faculty, One Resistance site


Mainstream communications including communication fostered at universities send few signals to students about the need to be more critical and selective in how one uses technology. We can play important roles as teachers to invite students to think critically about how technology impacts both their own practices and learning abilities and how it shapes broader social trends and problems. Introducing limitations in your classroom is a way to model such practices for students and it can encourage them to become more effective learners and sociologists. We should note that many students will protest such restrictions, since they are rarely required to disconnect from their devices. But holding firm to technology limitations can teach important lessons and life skills that many students in your classroom will (silently) appreciate.

Technology Policies*Drawing from research on the detrimental impacts of technology on education and learning, I have adopted the following technology policies:No assignments will be accepted via e-mail, and my preferred method of communication is face to face or by office phone. Please use opportunities after class or in office hours to discuss your work in the course. Do not use laptops or text messaging devices in class, and silence your cell phones and place them out of your sight.

The Problem of Digital Technology and Divided Attention--In recent years the saturation of cell phones, text messaging, and laptops, combined with the broad availability of wireless in classrooms, has produced something called the problem of divided attention. A March 25, 2008 article in the New York Timessummarized recent studies of productivity in business settings. Researchers found that after responding to email or text messages, it took people more than 15 minutes to re-focus on the "serious mental tasks" they had been performing before the interruption. Other research has shown that when people attempt to perform two tasks at once (e.g., following what's happening in class while checking text messages), the brain literally cannot do it. The brain has got to give up on one of the tasks in order to effectively accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, then, is this sad truth: "it makes you slower and dumber." For this reason alone you should seek to avoid the problem of divided attention when you are in class. But there's another reason, too: technology often causes us to lose our senses when it comes to norms of polite behavior and, as a result, "perfectly nice people become unbelievably rude and insulting." For both these reasons, then, turn off your cell phones or set them on silent mode when you come to class, and refrain from using laptops and any other electronic devices during class. *
Source: Dr. Cara Finnegan. (See also work by Sherry Turkle- Reclaiming Conversation in a Digital Age)