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How educators can empower students to manage digital distractions for healthy learning environments

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

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As the carefree days of summer are coming to an end, students across the country are soaking up every last minute of summer and mentally prepping for the new school year. And they’re not the only ones, educators are also starting to think about the new school year and how they might empower students to strike a balance with their tech as classes begin again.

This time of year brings with it a unique challenge: the need to navigate the digital distractions that have become deeply ingrained in students' lives over the summer. From endless hours scrolling through TikTok, watching Netflix with their families, or playing Roblox with their friends, students will have to make the transition from near-constant access to tech to balancing their time on it with their school work, at-home responsibilities, and afterschool activities. As our students are transitioning from a summer filled with leisurely scrolling and endless screen time, educators are shouldering the responsibility of helping students find a balance between their digital world and the world around them.

So how can you manage digital distractions in the classroom? Read on to uncover expert strategies from The Social Institute, the leader in understanding student experiences and strengthening school communities, to guide your students back to focused and meaningful education in the new school year.

Social media and tech are here to stay

Social media and technology are a part of our students’ lives, with 95% of teens having access to a smartphone or computer. Add in the fact that 1:1 devices have significantly increased for all grade levels, from elementary to high school, in this post-COVID world, students need guidance on managing their digital distractions.

But how? With the right tools and tips, educators can empower students to navigate tech positively in the classroom to avoid digital distractions and create high-impact learning environments for students.

At The Social Institute, we understand the importance of equipping students to navigate the complexities of technology without the traditional ‘scare and restrict’ approach to tech and social media. That’s why we huddled with Dr. Jessica Anderson, a renowned Child Psychologist and Dean of Students at Mason Preparatory School, to explore how you can help your students strike a balance between technology and learning.

Understanding the challenges of digital distractions

Digital distractions have become prevalent in today's classrooms, posing a significant obstacle to students’ engagement levels and success. The constant allure of social media, never-ending notifications, and the temptation to multitask on school-issued devices has shown to disrupt students’ learning process. A study found that students who use a laptop in the classroom are more likely to engage in off-task activities, even if they’re interested in what they’re learning.

But it’s not all bad news. The reality is that social media and technology have pros and cons. On the one hand, 40% of teachers report that social media has a positive effect on their student’s ability to communicate. However, some studies have found that students who were addicted to social media had significantly lower academic performance than students who were not. Regardless of the cons, our students use social media to be social and use technology to learn, which means it isn’t going away anytime soon.

That’s why we have to use tech to control tech and empower our students to strike a balance with their devices during school time. Guiding students to use apps, settings, and features to manage their devices and social media is a proactive approach to using technology for good and ensures your students use it intentionally and responsibly in the classroom and beyond. For example, when you encourage your students to place their devices on ‘Do Not Disturb,’ you’re using tech to control tech!

Let’s face it, screen time is a reality for almost all of us

In our Grade 9 #WinAtSocial Lesson, Debating tech giants’ newest features and the science of screen time, we asked students what digital distraction was most difficult for them to resist throughout the day. Their answer? Sending a snap or message and checking what the person sends back.

According to Pew Research Center, 54% of teens say giving up social media would be hard or somewhat hard. And teens aren’t the only ones struggling to balance their screen time. In 2023, Americans check their phones an average of 144 times daily. For some educators, the answer to this challenge is simply banning devices in the classroom. While this might seem like a solution, the reality is that it overlooks the fact that students will grow up and use social media and tech throughout their lives. Learning how to use technology in different settings responsibly, be it in the classroom or at a future job, is a modern life skill that students need to succeed.

At The Social Institute, we worked with students and educators nationwide to develop Seven Social Standards that help students navigate their online and offline worlds positively. One of the standards is Strike A Balance, which is all about balancing our time and attention on tech with the people around us.

Striking a balance between tech and the real world expands beyond just putting your device away. It’s about choosing whether or not to have a conversation in person or via text, recognizing how screen time impacts your well-being, preventing burnout, and so much more.

So instead of banning technology, educators can teach their students modern-day life skills like how to “use tech to control tech” and harness it to minimize distractions in their classroom.

Strategies for helping your students strike a balance

While in the classroom, students are surrounded by distractions, from tech to other students and more. Here are a few simple ways to eliminate device distractions in your classroom:

  • The 45-Degree Rule: While using laptops in class, it can be tempting for students to get off task and start doing something else online. Implement the 45-Degree rule in your classroom that encourages students to tilt their laptop screens down while you’re teaching. This rule is a simple way to recenter your students’ attention back to you and away from their screens.

  • Walk around your classroom: It’s normal to assign individual work that students will complete on their devices, whether they’re working on a Google Doc or building a presentation. To ensure they stay on task, walk around the classroom to keep your students accountable. This way, you can see what they’re navigating on their screen, and it’s harder for them to get distracted by other tabs.

  • Using tech to control tech: If walking around the room isn’t doing the trick or isn’t an ideal way for you to monitor your students, you can lean on platforms that lock students’ screens and encourage them to close tabs that aren’t related to the task at hand. Some educators use Apple Classroom, Securely Classroom, or Airplane mode to help their students focus.

Lastly, one of the best practices to ensure you and your students are on the

same page about device use in your classroom is to work together with your

students to create your own classroom technology policy. You can download our easy-to-navigate Classroom Technology Policy to get started!

By empowering your students to navigate their devices positively in the classroom, you’re further preparing them to do the same at home in their daily lives and in the future throughout college or the workplace!

How educators can use tech to control tech

The best part of technology is that it often feels like there are apps and features for pretty much everything you can think of – and balancing technology is one of them. From Focus Mode to concentration apps, you and your students can essentially “use tech to control tech.”

Here are a few suggested concentration apps and features that can help students balance their time on their devices in the classroom:

focus mode apps
  • Focus Mode: Students can create their own focus options based on what time of the day it is or what they want to accomplish. Encourage your students to set up a “School” focus mode where only certain apps related to school can send notifications during school hours.

  • Forest: In this app, students will virtually plant a tree and watch it grow while working! But their plant won’t grow if they’re using their device! The longer you stay off your device, the more your tree grows.

  • Flora: This app will let you choose when you want to block certain apps during a set schedule! If your students have difficulty not checking their devices for Snap notifications or messages, this app can help them temporarily restrict apps like Snapchat or messaging.

If your students struggle to strike a balance with social media and tech this year, share these apps and features with them! You can also have them coach up and share tips that work for them with their classmates because after all, students are often the social media experts!

TSI’s Take

This school year, dealing with digital distractions in the classroom doesn’t have to be a challenge. With these tips and tricks, your students will be able to build the life skills they need to balance their time online and offline. By leveraging technology to control technology, you can empower your students to manage their relationships with social media and digital devices in a positive, high-character way. When we remove digital distractions, we can deliver high-impact teaching to students while boosting their tech skills.

At The Social Institute, we are committed to supporting educators in navigating the ever-evolving landscape of technology in education. If you’re looking for more resources on how to encourage your students to strike a balance, we offer a peer-to-peer technology that helps 3rd-12th grade students do just that. For more information of our Strike A Balance lessons, request a demo today.

Always stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest trends online by subscribing to The Huddle, a weekly newsletter where we talk about trending tech and social media news weekly! In the meantime, check out our Instagram and TikTok @thesocialinst for tips, trends, and highlights when it comes to social media.



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