Schools are leading the way with decisions around technology and perhaps they have a lesson for the rest of us, too.
The way we connect with people has changed; it’s affecting our relationships and not everybody is happy about it.
The result is perhaps best summed up in internet memes that say, “No. I can’t answer the phone. Just text me like a normal person” and, “Congratulations, you survived a meeting that could have been an email”.
For many, life has become so busy that a simple telephone call can be a stifling interruption to a hectic lifestyle.
A decline in face-to-face communication has meant fewer social opportunities for some. Is this affecting our social satisfaction, prompting rising rates of loneliness, or are our social skills suffering as a result?
These alterations in our social communication could create a slippery slope towards the end of social etiquette as we know it.
Less exposure, experience and opportunity to observe others could mean young people are the biggest casualties. Or at least, that is what the media would lead us to believe.
Is the use of mobile phones as bad as everyone thinks?
A recent study published in Nature Human Behaviour suggests that all the digital technology use may not be as detrimental for young people as previous research has indicated.
The researchers were cynical about the negative findings linking tech and negative wellbeing, so they used a novel and more robust analytical approach to examine the relationship between screen time and wellbeing.
The results, based on analyses of more than 355,000 adolescents, showed that screen time was about as bad for teens as eating potatoes.
In fact, they reported that wearing glasses has a stronger negative effect on wellbeing than technology.
However, even excessive consumption of potatoes can have ill effects especially if they are deep fried and drenched in salt.
In a similar way, the benefits and drawbacks of technology are also dependent on context.
Ultimately, times have changed. Gone are the days where adolescents would sit glued to fixed-line telephones caressing the cord distractedly in infinite conversations with friends.
Of course, this was much to the frustration of their parents, or even anyone else who tried to call and was met with the blunt engaged tone.
But it seems that a change in technology use does not necessarily mean a demise in civilisation.
Wellbeing is one thing, but what about human connection?
It seems that verbal communication is out.
Written communication is in, and modern analysis reveals that even this is rapidly shrinking.
Within the context of a text, email or instant message, whole sentences become a few consonants and vowels, and emotional intent is expressed through a simple emoji or humorous gif.
And while this predictable 24/7 service is efficient, we have to question whether young people are spending the time to build the connections they need to fulfil their need to belong and engage with others.
What are schools doing with this information?
It’s not surprising that the way young people use technology and their ability to connect with peers and friends have become of great interest to schools.
In the absence of longitudinal research, many schools have banned the use of mobile phones during class and break times.
The anecdotal results are as expected. Students spend less time looking at their devices and more time interacting with peers.
While doing so, they build relationships and social skills. The argument against this approach states that a blanket ban of mobile phones stops students from developing the skills to responsibly manage their use.
On the other hand, perhaps they are learning to build other social and emotional competencies instead?
Schools should be allowed to be schools
Educational professionals working in schools should be trusted to do what they are trained to do – make informed educational decisions without feeling pressured to immediately react to the waxing and waning of public opinion proliferated by social media.
Certainly, schools should be encouraged to continue to take an interest and an active role in the use of technology by young people, and consider evidence-based findings in light of their unique contexts.
That means supporting schools to make decisions that are best for their students and teachers, and not pressuring them to implement uniform policies to the detriment of their own community.
After all, school is a constant in a large portion of the population’s lives, even as parents, carers or grandparents.
Schools provide social opportunities – not only for children and teenagers – but also for adults, community groups, businesses and other social spheres in which schools operate.
Schools also vicariously teach social etiquette – even as it relates to phone use. A lack of this knowledge can cripple an individual’s potential to thrive in the broader community. It is therefore imperative that schools ensure whatever mechanisms they employ to govern technology is purpose fit to their people and context.
Should we be learning from schools rather than vice-versa?
Schools have become a central place of community belonging. Once considered a microcosm of broader society, they now arguably set standards for the rest of society.
What can we learn from schools about the use of electronic devices for social engagement within the context of the broader community?
As highlighted by the innovative study in Nature Human Behaviour, the results of many empirical studies supporting the ‘technology is bad for young people’ argument are often hampered by limitations with research design and analysis.
Perhaps it’s time for the media and public opinion to put less stock in the findings of individual studies, and empower schools to make their own choices based on what they believe is best for the students they teach.
Dr Kelly-Ann Allen: Educational and Developmental Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at Monash University
Honorary Fellow, Centre for Positive Psychology Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne
Dr Tracii Ryan: Research Fellow, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne and Faculty of Education, Monash University