About 2 years ago, I was looking to incorporate digital wellbeing into my Freshman Intro to Tech class, and I came across the excellent TED talk by Manoush Zomorodi, podcast host extraordinaire. In 2015, she ran a challenge on her Note to Self podcast focusing on putting down your phone and tuning up your attention and embracing boredom. Her book, Bored and Brilliant, is a deep dive into boredom and how it is beneficial to our creativity. Scientists who study boredom explain that our brains go into overtime when we are bored and let our minds wander. Try to remember the last time you had a great idea. Chances are that you were doing some kind of mundane task like folding laundry, taking a shower, doing the dishes, or mowing the lawn.
That first year, I used Manoush’s TED talk to jumpstart our own screen time tracking project. This tracking was linked with lessons that included research on the effects of multitasking on our brains, as well as the implications of how tech companies design apps like slot machines (as explained by ex-Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris) to capture and keep our attention.
This year, we took the plunge and students learned about multitasking, attention, FOMO, the attention economy, and they tried two of the five challenges put forward in the Note to Self podcast. Students used Flipgrid to record their own video journal entries on the experience, and they tracked their own screen time, attempting to make connections between their screen time and the challenges.
Students had one week (class only meets twice a week) to complete the two challenges, and they tracked their screen time for 5 days. A fascinating caveat to this year’s project was that the work that Tristan Harris and others have done to expose the (often unethical) way that tech companies design their tech to suck us in, and to the research that has been coming out around screen time, social media, and mental health, meant that screen tracking tools are now baked into our device’s operating system. Last year, we had to hunt down apps that would to that for us.
Some students had already used the screen time feature on their phone and were not surprised by what they saw. Others were amazed to see that they spent upwards of 6 hours a day on apps like Instagram or Netflix. Some of those numbers even reached higher.
The FlipGrid video topics are below. The third day had the same topic as #2. Students were assessed on whether they addressed every part of the question using FlipGrid’s built in rubric tool.
- Which challenges are you going to try and why? What do you think will be the hardest part about completing these challenges?
- What challenge did you try? How did it go? What was your screen time yesterday? Do you think there is a connection between your challenge and your screen time? Would you try this challenge again?
The project itself is below. I removed the links to our FlipGrid grids to protect student privacy. I chose to keep the videos private rather than public to the class since these were, at times, very personal. Some students did not feel comfortable talking to a camera, so I allowed students to cover their faces with an emoji, or cover their camera and record just their voice.
The project had its struggles. For one, recording videos is not always easy in a classroom of 30 kids. I eventually had them take turns in shifts of 5 recording in the hallway. The videos only had to be 30-60 seconds long, so that was doable in one 65 minute period. The second struggle was, well, Apple products. We use Chromebooks, and students couldn’t easily connect their AirPods, and they couldn’t connect their iPhone headphones to their Chromebook at all.
Another struggle was buy-in. For the Note to Self project, all of the participants had opted in. Since students were, essentially, forced to do these challenges, some of them were more engaged in actually doing the challenges than others. Some saw no issue with their screen use, or really hated being bored.
This last piece led to the biggest flaw in how I introduced the project. I assumed that students would just fill their time with something else if they didn’t have their phone to distract them. However, I quickly realized that, in many cases, they didn’t know what else to do if they were bored. They didn’t know how to be bored. Next year, I will make sure to include a brainstorm and aspect of the project that provides students with a goal of how they will use the new time they have and what other things they can do aside from picking up their phone when they are bored.
Many aspects of the project were successful, however. A majority of students reported feeling more aware of their surroundings, and a slight majority said that they would continue to attempt to be more focused on the moment rather than their phone.
I wish that I could say that this project magically changed my students’ phone use in class, or that they suddenly stopped looking their phones during down time or that, during lunch, I saw fewer students on their phones. This short-term project was not going to change their behavior.
However, it did set a baseline for them to understand why I am telling them to put their phone down, or why they shouldn’t be scrolling social media while trying to complete an assignment (whether it is in class or at home). It also helped them understand the control that apps have over their behavior and that they can prevent that control if they are more thoughtful and careful about how they use their phone.
I wonder what this project would look like if it were a long-term project that involved research, reflection, data collection, and intentional work toward changing habits. I also wonder what this would look like if adults in the building were held to the same standard and participated as well. What would a “bored and brilliant” school community look like, and what could it achieve?