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Why are students growing tired, anxious and distracted?

February 23, 2016 Phil McRae, ATA Executive Staff Officer

Executive Report

Researchers from the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the University of Alberta, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School are working on a collaborative initiative, called Growing Up Digital (GUD) Alberta, to better understand the scope of physical, mental and social consequences of digital technologies in areas such as exercise, homework, identity formation, distraction, cognition, learning, nutrition, and sleep quality and quantity.

In December 2015, a stratified random sample of 3,600 teachers and principals from across Alberta were invited to participate in a GUD survey. This request attracted more than 2,200 participants and generated a sample that is highly representative of Alberta’s teaching population. The participants corresponded closely to the profession’s teacher and principal demographics, including age, gender, K–12 grade-level distribution, assignment, teaching experience and geographic representation from all corners of the province (rural, small urban, suburban and large urban).

The purpose of this initial survey was to identify baseline issues and essential research questions from teachers, principals and system leaders from across the Alberta education system. The survey succeeded in this goal and has highlighted, for the first time, the depth of interest and breadth of issues related to growing up digital in Alberta.

Correlations between the health outcomes as reported in this survey and much more pervasive technology use in students’ lives are emerging within a growing body of research literature. It will be the manifest work of the GUD project over the next several years to carefully investigate the many positive and negative impacts and then discuss their implications. For example, given the current findings, GUD researchers are exploring to what extent a correlation exists between students coming to school tired or anxious/depressed and their nocturnal (evening) screen-time exposure. It is our collective professional responsibility, and a societal imperative, to pay careful attention to this data and find ways to address these issues in the best interests of our children and youth.

Key findings
The data gathered from this recent survey clearly show that teachers and principals in Alberta hold strong perspectives on the impact of digital technologies on children’s and youth’s health, development and learning.

Educational technology
Overall, teachers report that digital technologies certainly enhance their teaching and learning activities, with inquiry-based learning (71 per cent) being the area of greatest perceived enrichment. Teachers expressed interest in seeing technologies used in schools to help students become empowered citizens, with many comments highlighting the importance of resources and experiences that support students’ learning how to flourish as active and engaged citizens in a digital age. The most common instructional uses of digital technologies on a weekly basis are to provide access to a variety of learning resources (79 per cent), to enable communication with parents (79 per cent), and to differentiate resources and materials to support students who have a variety of learning needs (69 per cent).

Health and well-being
However, when surveyed on issues related to health and well-being outcomes, Alberta teachers indicated that there has been a dramatic change in their student populations over the past three to five years. Of particular note is the “somewhat” and “significant” increase in the number of students who demonstrate the following exceptionalities: emotional challenges (90 per cent), social challenges (86 per cent), behaviour support (85 per cent) and cognitive challenges (77 per cent). This data clearly illustrates a dramatic change in the complexity of the student population in Alberta.

When asked how the number of students with “diagnosed” health issues has changed in their classrooms, the following three conditions were reported to have increased by a majority of teachers: anxiety disorders (85 per cent), attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (75 per cent), and mood disorders such as depression (73 per cent). The clarity around the changes in health and well-being of our student population over the past three to five years is undeniable and serves as a clarion call for a collective (and mindful) societal response to these very complex challenges.

Distraction and technology
In terms of media use, 43 per cent of teachers “frequently” and 33 per cent “very frequently” observe students multitasking with digital technologies. Of particular note is that a majority (67 per cent) of teachers from this stratified random sample believe that digital technologies are a growing distraction in the learning environment. Those who believe students are negatively distracted by technology state the degree as “very many” (48 per cent) and “almost all” (11 per cent) students. Further, when asked to reflect on their personal use of digital technologies, 62 per cent of teachers feel that they themselves are also “somewhat” (75 per cent) or to a “great extent” (14 per cent) negatively distracted.

Research around digital technologies and media use taking time away from human relationships is an active field of inquiry within the health and social sciences. Of particular interest is emerging research relating to fragmented attention (or unpredictable care) during sensitive developmental periods and the resulting impact on brain development that may lead to emotional problems later in life.

Student readiness to learn
Generally, teachers and principals perceive that Alberta students’ readiness to learn has been in steady decline. There is a strong sense among a majority of teaching professionals within this sample that over the past three to five years students across all grades are increasingly having a more difficult time focusing on educational tasks (76 per cent), are coming to school tired (66 per cent) and are less able to bounce back from adversity (that is, lacking resilience) (62 per cent).

Concurrent to this, 44 per cent of teachers note a decrease in student empathy, and over half of the sample (56 per cent) reported an increase in the number of students who have discussed with them incidents of online harassment or cyberbullying. ❚

Phil McRae is a researcher with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta. One of his research specialties is technology in education.

Questions from teachers and principals

While many complex forces will be shaping these student health outcomes, the extent to which technology is one of them is of significant interest to the survey participants. Below are some representative samples of the several thousand questions and comments submitted to this survey.

“Do children have more difficulty playing and interacting than they did before?”

“I am concerned about children’s growing deficits in understanding non-verbal communication cues during in-person conversations.”

“To what extent are parents monitoring student use of technology? At what age did students begin using technology in the home?”

“Do you believe that using technology is addictive?”

“Is brain activity and cognitive functioning enhanced, decreased or neutral when digital technology is used? And does this vary by the age of the child?”

“In my role as a high school admin [principal], I see how many kids are ‘ruled’ by their use of technology. I also see how technology is used for bullying purposes regularly. If this is our reality, then why is the push for technology in schools increasing? How do we adequately support kids who are addicted to technology to the point where it rules their lives?”

“Are digital technologies contributing to students’ inability to focus for long periods of time?”

“Is a student’s increasing online presence decreasing real-world satisfaction and positive peer-to-peer interaction?”

“Is technology having a negative effect on life balance for students? Is time that should be spent socializing, in activity, reading, sleeping etc. reduced as students increase screen time? Is there a relationship between screen time and student social capacity?”

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