I was recently forwarded a TED Talk by Adam Alter that looked at the reasons behind why we use websites and apps that make us feel bad. As digital wellness has become an increasing priority for our students, I was quite intrigued by the science behind these decisions that our students (and I) sometimes make.
I can remember in the late 90s when Rate my Teacher were becoming popular, and I found myself going to these sites fairly regularly. Even though I found mostly positive reviews, a few negative ones left me with that bad feeling. So why would I keep going back? I knew the negative reviews would be there and I knew that I would reread them and would get the same feeling. I remember being really upset with myself that I kept opening up the door to these negative feelings by visiting the site over and over. I had to make a forced and conscious decision to stop looking at the website.
Looking back on this experience has made me wonder — do our students today have the skill set to make the same decision? Unfortunately, I don’t think many of them do.
A colleague of mine recently wrote a wonderful blog post about FOMO, the fear of missing out. I think students also suffer from FONBA, Fear of Not Being Acknowledged, when it comes to their social media habits. A tweet or snap that’s not liked or retweeted instantly causes stress. A thumbs up, heart or smiley face, from just the right people gives a shot of dopamine that keeps them coming back. And this isn’t limited to young people — I think we all can relate to a time when we've constantly scrolled through likes and comments, and the feeling of disappointment when you didn't hear from certain or enough people.
As this past school year drew to a close, I had some conversations with a couple of my helpdesk student workers. I showed them the TED talk and we chatted about these ideas. Savannah, a 17 year old soon to be senior, was the first to comment, pretty passionately, that those feelings are real. She commented on how during her middle school days feeling very anxious about her Snapchat posts. She agreed it is an issue still and has trained herself to use the Do Not Disturb functionality on her iPhone when studying. Savannah did say that her parents are very involved in her social and academic life with her mom following her on all of her social media accounts. But what about students who don’t have a support structure or the internal discipline to turn away?
Surprisingly, but maybe not so much, in a recent study by Common Sense Media, teenagers said that social media makes their lives better. While acknowledging that social media is a distraction and most teens think tech companies attempt to manipulate them, they also say they feel less lonely and better about their lives. But this research also shows that students with lower social emotional well-being are more likely to be negatively affected when using social media. And, most disconcertingly, over half of the young people surveyed said that their parents would be very concerned if they knew what really went on via social media.
So what’s the answer? I’m not sure any one single solution exists. What we can do now is foster open and honest relationships with our kids and students. An open dialogue as our children grow into their digital presence is essential. We can’t assume that our students have the skills necessary to navigate all of this just because we, as adults, believe that kids today are so tech savvy. We, as their parents and teachers, have our work to do, too.
Author Steve Starner is a teacher with the Hilliard City District in Ohio.