A few years ago, Janell Burley Hoffman gave her 13-year-old son his first iPhone for Christmas. Attached to the gift was a special contract — one that Janell wrote, identifying the rules and expectations around his newfound ownership of a phone. The creative contract was picked up by the local news and went viral, and it quickly transformed into her now famous iRules, a book that guides parents and teens through the digital age.
A writer and advocate for digital health and wellness, Janell now coaches families that might be struggling to deal with tech-life balance and other digital issues. Here, she shares why teachers also play an critical role in shaping how students think about and navigate their tech-use, and we included 20 unique tips for teachers considering this discussion.
1. Reflect Positive Digital Habits
A recurring hypocrisy among generations today is how frequently adults suggest that teens are addicted to their devices without considering their own behaviours. The abundance of articles and studies that point toward negative teen behaviour more than any other age group can be discouraging and even have an opposite effect on young people. "Adults need to look at their own habits too," Janell says. "If we put ourselves in a place of vulnerability and imperfection, kids won't feel judged."
As an educator, it could be necessary to check your messages or reply to an email during class or between lessons. Although the task might be work-related, this could unintentionally send a message to students that it's okay to use your phone, and banning theirs might seem unfair.
Instead, Janell suggests using this opportunity to reflect on technology use and engage with students about positive digital habits. For example, intentional and mindful technology use — like taking time to respond to messages thoughtfully — is a valuable lesson for students. "Giving yourself time for a proper response and thoughtful engagement as much as possible is key to your own digital health and helps prevent communication burnout," she says.
1. What do we want our classroom culture to be? Are phones part of that culture?
2. Are there positive aspects of disconnecting in the classroom? What are they?
3. How can we incorporate these positive aspects into our classroom culture?
4. What does it mean to use technology professionally and appropriately?
5. What are some unprofessional ways we might use technology?
6. How can we avoid or reduce these behaviours as a group?
2. Be a Mentor and Guide For Learning
Janell's son and those she speaks to are fortunate enough to have a mentor who advocates for tech-life balance and has a deep understanding of digital health and wellness, but not everyone is so lucky. On the contrary; people of all ages are usually handed a device and left to figure out how to navigate it on their own. "Think about a driver's license," Janell says, "you don't just turn 16 and get to drive." Similarly, our devices are a powerful source of freedom that can be easily exploited and abused if not guided responsibly.
But it isn't a matter of simply passing a test; positive digital habits come from learning. For example, Janell helped her family with a guide that reflected the different behaviours and skills she wanted her kids to develop. In the classroom, she suggests that the same can be accomplished if you consider the skills, behaviours, and lessons you want your students to learn and empower them to get there.
7. What skills and lessons do I want my students to develop over throughout this course?
8. How does technology fit into this goal?
9. How could technology get in the way of this goal?
10. What more can I do to support and enable my students to achieve this goal?
3. Nurture Space To Unplug and Create
At home, Janell encourages device-free mealtime and tech-curfews at bedtime. In the classroom, she says creating an environment where students are encouraged to disconnect is equally beneficial. "Having space from technology for imagination and problem solving — that's something I highly value," Janell says.
A University of Nebraska study of 675 college students found that a leading reason students reach for their phones during class is to fight boredom. While it's possible that banning devices from the classroom could prevent this key distractor, it doesn't teach students how to manage their distractions effectively and creatively.
Alternatively, supporting and encouraging space to unplug could help teach students to manage their boredom and refocus their distractions; for example, doodling on paper is one activity researchers suggest can refresh and re-engage a distracted mind. Dr. Srini Pillay, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote that doodling can help individuals retain more information, strengthen memories, and keep bored minds active. "Paying continuous attention places a strain on the brain, and doodling may be just the break your brain needs to keep attending without losing total interest," he says.
"Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything. Technology is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too."
- Steve Jobs
Janell also suggests taking it a step further and encouraging students to consider how they could use their screens productively and creatively during moments of boredom. "Not all screen time is created equal," Janell says, suggesting that teachers should ask students to reflect on their screen use. "How can we make sure our screen use is effective and productive? How can we use screens during down time to increase and engage further learning and experience?"
Enabling students to refocus their distractions by encouraging activities like doodling and more productive screen use can give students more space to imagine, create, and connect ideas from the task at hand in a way that could be more effective than scrolling passively.
11. Gamify your classroom by challenging students to unplug during class with a tool like Flipd.
12. Give students pen and paper so they can doodle instead of scroll passively.
13. Ask students to engage with their devices in more meaningful ways during moments of boredom.
14. Involve students in discussions and challenging activities that both use and do not use technology.
4. Emphasize That Etiquette Matters
Having devices with us all of the time has increased the pressure around immediately checking and replying to notifications as soon as we get them. But Janell has found that this behaviour can be changed if people are consistently instilled with good etiquette, both on and offline.
"Have a conversation with the people you text in person. It's a life skill."
- Janell Burley Hofman, iRule #5
Janell says that, in guiding her son to develop an etiquette around his own phone use over the years, his friends and peers have taken note. "It's raised their awareness around their own digital use — that it's disrespectful to take your device out and do something else," she says.
In the classroom, you should be letting your students know that phone use is not only distracting to the individual operating the device, but that it's disrespectful to you, their peers, and the class culture that you've established together. "They should know that just because others might be doing it, it doesn't make it not rude," Janell says, explaining that students can be a positive influence for each other if positive habits and etiquette are reinforced.
Similar to reflecting positive digital habits, she emphasizes that educators should consider themselves a model of good etiquette and teach its lasting importance in life. "We need to teach students to use technology in a professional way," she says. "Guidance and mentorship here is critical."
15. What bothers your students about phone use in class?
16. What do your students consider to be "rude" behaviour in the classroom?
17. What expectations do students have of their peers when speaking?
18. What expectations should I have of my students when I'm speaking?
19. Why does classroom etiquette matter?
20. How can classroom etiquette be applied in life beyond the classroom?
Janell Burley Hofmann is an international author, speaker and consultant specializing on the topics of technology, media, health, relationships and well-being. Janell is the creator of the original "iPhone contract" and a thought leader in the space of digital mindfulness, digital parenting and intentional use of tech. She is the author of the book, iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up published by Rodale, Inc. Janell is also the founder of the Slow Tech Movement, iRules Academy and the mother of five children ages 9, 11, 13, 15, 17. For more about Janell, visit www.janellburleyhofmann.com.