This post is written by Joshua Ratliff. Josh is currently the Director of Education Initiatives at Trafera, in West Virginia. He holds certifications in Professional Teaching and Technology Integration for PreK-Adult, and is a Google for Education Certified Trainer. You can connect with Josh on Twitter @jratliffedu.
First things first. Let me say up front that the term “technology addiction” is a tricky one.
Mental health professionals use the DSM-5-TR to classify and diagnose mental disorders, but there are no diagnostic criteria for technology addiction in that classification.
When I use that term, I’m using it to describe the human experience. It’s that urge to pick up our phones and to stare and scroll. Stare and scroll. Stare and scroll.
It’s the phenomenon we see in others when we “people watch” and the one we see in ourselves when we are brave enough to look closely in the mirror.
Technology addiction is something our students confront every day. Most of them were born into a technology-rich world with little to no strategy for how to navigate it.
It can cripple their attention. It can impact their relationships. It can be destructive.
How can we help?
Let's get a better understanding of why our brain gets addicted. Then, let's look at some strategies we educators can use in the context of teaching and learning.
Why do our brains get addicted?
Watson (2021) explains that if we really want to understand addiction, we need to understand dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has two main functions:
- Dopamine creates pleasure. Dopamine tells your brain, “Hey!! This feels good!”
- Dopamine supports memory encoding (Clos et al., 2019). Dopamine tells your brain, “Remember this moment and try to make it happen again in the future.”
According to Dugdale (2021), we all have a baseline level of dopamine. Certain things cause those levels to temporarily rise, including food, sex, cocaine, and opioids. Similarly, we receive a small hit of dopamine when our phone lights up with a new “like” on a social media post or a text from our best friend. These things hit the pleasure center of our brains. They feel good. We want more.
When we can't regulate the impact that those dopamine hits have on our consciousness, that's where addiction happens. The craving for those dopamine hits draws us away from important things. And cumulatively, over time, the power of the tech-induced dopamine starts to control us.
We can help students take control, though.
Strategy 1: Develop a Healthy Balance
When someone is being treated for an addiction, the goal is to either stop using or develop a healthy balance.
It all depends on what the addiction is linked to (NIDA, 2023). For example, if we’re talking about food, we’re not going to stop eating. In fact, maybe the opposite is true. We have to learn to eat exceptionally well. We have to learn what nourishes our bodies and makes us strong and healthy.
Another example: with cocaine addiction, the goal would be total cessation.
Now, let’s apply this to educational technology. Should we stop using technology to enhance learning? That doesn't sound like the answer. Instead, let's learn how to integrate technology exceptionally well. I use the SAMR model for this.
SAMR is a simple model for evaluating the impact of technology on a learning experience. I like to strive for modification and redefinition when possible. These are the highest orders of instructional technology. I think of them as the health foods of EdTech.
Instead of getting rid of technology all together -- or using it for everything -- use it in ways that truly enhance learning.
Strategy 2: Get a Sponsor
The American Addiction Center (2017) explains that a sponsor is a mentor that helps recovering addicts along their journey.
- The sponsor is encouraging and non-judgmental.
- The sponsor has high expectations.
- Accountability is important too.
- The sponsor has to be tuned in and aware of what is happening with their sponsee. If someone in recovery is tempted to use, they are trained to check in with their sponsor.
In the classroom, the educator can be the mentor. It is our job to cultivate trusting relationships with our students. Let’s be non-judgmental and encourage them when they struggle. But let's also maintain fiercely high expectations that drive our students to excellence.
To do this well, we have to know what’s happening with technology use in our classrooms. Use proximity -- being physically close enough to students to see what's going on -- to remind students that we expect them to be on task.
Consider using classroom management software, too. This will give you greater visibility into how they are using technology and will allow you to redirect them when they need it.
Strategy 3: Avoid isolation
This is my favorite talking point in this discussion. Johann Hari (2015) says that the opposite of addiction is connection.
Let me repeat that: The opposite of addiction is CONNECTION.
I think he’s right. We need each other. In the clinical setting, recovering addicts are encouraged to stay in community.
When someone stops using, a void is created that needs to be filled. Being connected helps fill that void with healthy, authentic community.
Are students misusing their phones in class? If so, they are often simply trying to connect with someone they care about. It takes different forms, like texting with friends or checking social media. Ultimately, the motivation is the same. They want to be connected.
What if we build that connection into the learning experience? Just like a clinician would encourage and create opportunities for recovering addicts to connect with others, we should look for opportunities to foster community in our classrooms. For this, consider the following collaboration model.
Just because students are sitting in a small group sharing scissors and colored pencils does not mean that they are collaborating. True collaboration occurs when students have both a shared product and joint reasoning.
We can help students overcome technology addiction
Teachers and principals, I encourage you to implement these strategies in your classrooms. I firmly believe that technology can have a profoundly positive impact on teaching and learning. But, it can also be a huge distraction when it’s not done well. Let’s do better! With the strategies outlined above, we can leverage the creative power of technology to not only facilitate meaningful learning experiences but also promote wellness and digital citizenship among learners.
If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
American Addiction Centers. (2017, June 22). 12 Questions About the 12-Steps: What is a Sponsor? American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/blog/what-is-a-sponsor
Clos, M., Bunzeck, N., & Sommer, T. (2019). Dopamine is a double-edged sword: Dopaminergic modulation enhances memory retrieval performance but impairs metacognition. Neuropsychopharmacology, 44(3), 555–563. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-018-0246-y
Dugdale, D. (2021). Catecholamine blood test: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003561.htm
Hari, J. (2015). Johann Hari: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong | TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong/c
NIDA. (2023). Treatment and Recovery. National Institute on Drug Abuse. http://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
Watson, S. (2021, July 20). Dopamine: The pathway to pleasure. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/dopamine-the-pathway-to-pleasure
Screen time is one of my digital citizenship units. I wanted to share two teaching resources that have excellent learning activities for the classroom. They are everfi.com Ignition: Digital Wellness and Safety Course lesson 3 & Commons Sense Media.
I really like the healthy balance paradigm and the SAMR model for technology use. Have you written elsewhere (or would you…?) about implementing the SAMR? I’d love more specific examples of what Modification and Redefinition would look like in a high school classroom so that I could see how to move beyond Substitution and Augmentation. Thanks!
I am a high school teacher and in my career have been a technology integration specialist. I’ve been blessed to be a & runner-up for teacher of the year in MA and I also received a MA state-level technology award. It’s been my teaching experience that having my students make a movie or author a book (I love Book Creator) allows me to transform my teaching in accordance with the SAMR model. I also use Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to make sure I have my students go into a content depth appropriate for high school. I use TPACK (tpack.org)as a model as well. From Bloom’s viewpoint, my high school students are working on developing their skills in creativity & synthesis. I also have used Evo robots by Ozobot as a transforming technology. These little bots are so much fun and support three ways of coding, color codes, blockly programming, and Python in case you need to differentiate. The company is awesome and supports teachers K-12, these bots can be used in any subject area, and their classroom area contains free lesson plans that other teachers have deployed.