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  • Joseph Dumont

Smartphones and the Theft of Learning

Updated: Aug 26, 2019



I love my sweet, sweet iPhone 7 nestled inside its awesome Star Trek case. It is my lifeline for family, friends and work. If I forget it at home when I leave the house, I feel like I am missing an appendage. My iPhone is crucial in how I connect with my world. This is true for almost everyone. If you used your phone in the last few minutes you were likely taking a picture, responding to a message (text, iMessage, a DM, or email), checking your social media feeds, or cuing up entertainment - music, Netflix, Youtube, etc. Those four little activities are what most people do with their smartphone, most of the time. My wife and I text to help us stay in touch and keep our family organized, I check email on my phone for work, I use an app to request services at school for any maintenance needs, and I use social media to share pictures of my kids and of things happening at school (my camera helps with the last two activities). Companies like Apple have combined mobile technology and the internet to help make smartphones a very important part of our lives. But this change has brought with it a dark side, and the challenges that the digital era has ushered in are still in development. This one is complicated.


One challenge of our amazing technology is what employers refer to as “theft of time”. This when an employee is being paid for doing work for their organization or company, but instead steals that time by doing something else, usually personal. This can be looking at real estate, shopping on Amazon, or setting a line up for a fantasy football team (I am guilty of all three!) Small “thefts of time” are probably not a big deal. When I post a fun and educational event happening at school on Twitter to promote our programs, I am doing work for school. But when I get distracted after making my post and then I spend five minutes reading a news story I saw on Twitter about Tesla instead of tending to my work, that is theft of time. My challenge, like everyone’s, is to be disciplined enough to not steal from my employer by getting distracted with that intriguing post about a new Star Trek TV series that is coming out. But when speaking with some of my principal colleagues in the Edmonton area, catching school staff using their phone when they should be working with students is becoming a more common experience. I am not trying to point fingers here, because employees of all sectors are struggling with this issue. This past summer I asked business owners and managers across a variety of industries and they are telling similar stories about the struggle that smartphones present in the workplace. I recently read a news article about lifeguards in Ontario who are being asked to no longer have their phone on their person while on shift because of complaints from the public about them being on their phones (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/lifeguard-phones-1.5210542). So what is the problem here, do we just need more disciplined staff and maybe more clear policies to help us all be more disciplined? Maybe, but I also think that the true culprits here are not the employees, but rather the social media companies themselves.


“Facebook and other social media companies have weaponized psychology.”


This was a quote from a Medium article I read back in July (https://medium.com/@richardnfreed/the-tech-industrys-psychological-war-on-kids-c452870464ce). Essentially, the article talks about how social media companies have been hiring psychologists, using their knowledge of human behaviour, and then combining that with all of the data that they have amassed on each of us to not just sell us products or subscriptions, but to also keep us their platform for as long as possible, so they can then sell us to advertisers and Wall Street. These tech companies desire us to be hooked on their platform and never really completely turn them off. Think about how notifications keep you regularly distracted from life and focused on your phone. The notification tool keeps our attention and these companies will track what notifications were intriguing enough for us to actually go into the app and see what it was all about - so they can do it again. Because of this, I turned off all of my notifications except text messages to help me stay focused on the task at hand. This usually works well, but a few days ago my buddies messaged me a link to the new Top Gun movie preview, and I had to stop what I was doing and watch it immediately. My family and I were at a park on a lovely Sunday and I snuck off to watch the video for 2 and half minutes. No big deal right, but those types of distractions occur much more often than they should. (hold on, I need to go watch that preview again… “Not today Sir!!!”)



(Ok. I am back; I watched it twice.) So by now you must have collected some data on me?? You figured out that if I get fed anything about Star Trek or sci-fi, or from the 1980s into my social media feed, I wouldn’t be able to resist - and you would be right!! You could also gather that I am a generation Xer and in my 40’s, I am male and live in the Edmonton area in Canada. That data is exactly the type of stuff that social media companies, Netflix, Google, Amazon, YouTube and host of other platforms, collect and sell to advertises and third party apps to help them manipulate me. Data is everything to these companies and way back in 2017 a Facebook rep in Australia told potential advertisers that they can detect when a teenager is feeling a range of negative emotions and when those users will need a confidence boost. (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/01/facebook-advertising-data-insecure-teens) The data that has been gathered on people and shared across platforms is staggering; these companies even know how their users feel! That is why most of these companies prefer to not talk too much about this phenomena. This video below may give you some ideas of what is happening.


This video is from a new web browser called Duck Duck Go who is promising to not collect and sell your data like other tech companies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrmnaShNp-I




Our collective addiction to our smartphones is pervasive. This is probably why I have noticed more and more ways for people to use or bring along their phones. I have seen phone holders in cars, bikes and baby strollers, lawn chairs with phone holders beside the cup holder, and some swimming pools offer phone pouches so you can splash and play but still not miss the latest on Snapchat! Everywhere I go, I have noticed more and more, just how addictive smartphones have become - the park, the pool, the theatre, the campsite - they are everywhere. If data is being collected and shared to keep us all hooked on our screens and the adults are having a tough time with it, what is happening with our kids? This is where things get really scary!!!


Professor Jean M. Twenge published an article in the Atlantic called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/) In this article she shares the latest research, stating that starting around 2012 when a majority Americans owned a smartphone, we started to see some changes in our young people. Her data on teenagers shows that although teens today are less likely to drink alcohol or have sex than previous generations, todays teenagers are experiencing much higher rates of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.


From the article "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation" by Jean M. Twenge

“Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation. Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since.”


Reading through this article, I was shocked with how the psychological need to fit in takes a real turn for the worst for heavy social media users who are trying to meet those needs online, resulting in higher rates of depression, loneliness, thoughts of suicide. The less teenagers spend with real life friends and more online time, the more teens feel lonely and sad. Add to that the issue of sleep interruptions to the list of problems that smartphones can provide, and the teenager’s digitally connected world of today is presenting to professionals as a mental health crisis.

Tracking the interruptions in a classroom over 30 minutes.

Back at school, phones are presenting problems for students and teacher’s alike because the distractions they present are stealing time away from learning. An American math teacher created a tally sheet on his whiteboard, recording the interruptions students receive in a high school classroom. (https://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-hillsborough/hillsborough-math-teachers-experiment-with-students-shows-how-distracting-phones-are-in-classroom). In a 30 minute period of time the 23 students collectively received 268 interruptions via text messages, Instagram messages, Snapchats, and other social media notifications. It made me think of an 1980’s movie about life in high school - do you recall the look on the teacher’s face when Spicoli had a pizza delivered to his classroom in the 1980’s movie “Fast Times at Ridgemond High”? The teacher says to the student that he is causing a major disturbance in his class and then he invites other students to come share the pizza to make a point to Mr. Spicoli - it’s hilarious. But somehow we have gotten to the point that quieter yet constant distractions are interrupting a student’s learning has become a normalized part of teaching in today’s classrooms. How would the teacher at Ridgemont High handle his classroom if he was transported from 1982 to 2019 and had to deal with smartphones in his class?



The result of these distractions really amounts to “theft of learning” and it happens thanks to our amazing little devices. Individual schools, school boards and governments are all trying to help intervene on this issue. The entire province of Ontario has banned phones for students in all schools starting this September and the entire country of France banned phones from schools in the fall of 2018. School districts and individual schools in many places are trying to get a handle on how to protect learning and protect our students. But as one of the teachers in my school pointed out last spring, the tech companies have hundreds of highly paid engineers, coders and psychologists who are working long hours to help keep kids hooked on these apps and platforms - this battle doesn’t feel very fair.


In this news story (https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-44640959) a former employee of a social media company designed “infinite scroll” to keep people on their app for as long as possible. He felt like he was designing a slot machine because he was using the same strategies employed in a casino. Snapchat's strategy of tracking and rewarding "snapstreaks" is also another psychological tool in the battle for attention. Snapstreaks are so important to some young people they will email Snapchat to save their streak if they miss a day (https://www.businessinsider.com/snapchat-streaks-how-to-get-snapstreak-back-2019-7). In the war for a student’s attention, how can a teacher compete?


The solutions to help resolve the challenges smartphones present cannot just be a one sided policy or for a school to lock down technology. The solution must involve everyone - schools, students, parents, governments, social media companies, smartphone makers, etc. This isn’t an easy fix but we need all hands on deck to best understand these issues and then we need come together to help address these challenges. It feels like over the past few years I have heard from a number of students and parents about the rights of the individual, such as a student has a right to have their technology, parents have a right to contact them whenever needed via text message, etc. But I think the right to a quality education, the right to not have learning interrupted, and the right to privacy should take priority. I think it is time for us to have some real challenging conversations about how we can collectively make a difference for students.


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