Paul W. Bennett: ‘TikTok Brain’ is killing students’ ability to learn

Children’s daily entertainment usage of screens grew by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021
The creator of the "Bimbo Manifesto," Fiona Fairbairn, 19, poses for a portrait at her home in Thornhill, Ont., Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. "I'm sick of perceiving. I'm sick of being observational. I'm sick of being self-aware," Fairbairn told her 8,000 TikTok followers on Dec. 23. "Just let me be dumb, because people with no critical thinking skills be happy as hell." Chris Young/The Canadian Press.

TikTok essentially took over the teen world during the pandemic. With children and teens stuck at home for prolonged periods of time, North American trend trackers such as Griffin Jaeger observed that they spent much more of their time scrolling their FYP (for you page) learning the newest dances, discovering new fads, and even creating content of their own. Since schools reopened for in-person learning, it’s proven harder than expected to contain and guide them for educational purposes. 

Teachers are struggling to reclaim student focus and overcome “TikTok Brain” in their classes. A few regular teachers like Ontario high school teacher Dave Poirier have resorted to attention-grabbing gimmicks, including rather wacky TikTok lesson introductions. Setting electronic device policy in most provinces outside Ontario is left up to regional districts or individual schools. In many cases, teachers are combatting it alone in their classrooms. 

While mobile devices are generally not to be used by students without teacher approval, that rule is next-to-impossible to enforce. In Manitoba’s Pembina and Mystery Lake school divisions, for example, Shaftesbury High School teacher Rebecca Chambers is fairly typical, providing gentle guidance to students on whether it is appropriate or not to film TikToks in class. Deerwood School teacher Sarah Schroeder sees no point in trying to curtail TikTok and allows her students to make videos about social causes that stir their passion and interest. 

Serious gaps in student learning, psycho-social impacts, and academic achievement setbacks are now more visible from province to province in Canadian K-12 education. But what’s less recognized and largely unaddressed is the profound impact of students’ near-total fixation with cellphones and complete absorption in cyberworlds.

Promoters of ed tech have sold classroom teachers, parents, and policy-makers a bill of goods. Teachers are now facing an uphill battle to reclaim the attention of the pandemic generation of students who may be far more adept at accessing and using tech toys but who are also being profoundly affected by total immersion in constant connectivity, texting, and time-absorbing social media.

It’s next to impossible to learn or read with comprehension while keeping one eye on a phone, scrolling for videos, and being constantly interrupted while attempting to pay attention to your teachers. 

Multi-tasking is being exposed as a myth, and new evidence-based research is emerging which connects the proliferation of advanced cellphones with distractibility in workplaces and schools contributing to more frequent errors, higher levels of stress, reduced cognitive ability, and lower productivity.

Identifying the impact of mobile phones and social media is not new, as Teach Like a Champion founder Doug Lemov recently reminded us. American research generated by  Jean M. Twenge and others found that teenagers’ media use roughly doubled between 2006 and 2016 across gender, race, and class. In competition against the smartphone, the book, the idea of reading, lost significant ground. By 2016, just 16 percent of 12th-grade students read a book or magazine daily. As recently as 1995, 41 percent did. Meanwhile, social media was on the rise. By 2016, about three-quarters of teenagers reported using social media almost every day

The onslaught completely transformed teen culture with some detrimental side effects. Students who perform a task just in sight of their phone (regardless of if they are using it) do about 20 percent worse as it still distracts them. In addition, students who are on their phones more in class get worse grades, regardless of gender or previous grade average. Some 60 percent of U.S college students, surveyed long before the pandemic, reported feeling very agitated when they could not access their mobile phones.

The pandemic has only made matters worse. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, virtually everything that might have competed with smartphones suddenly disappeared. A recent Common Sense Media study found that children’s daily entertainment usage of screens grew by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021—more than it had grown during the four years prior. Overall, daily entertainment screen use in 2021 increased to 5.5 hours among tweens ages 8 to 12 and to more than 8.5 hours among teens ages 13 to 18, on average. These trends were even more pronounced for students from low-income families, whose parents were most likely to have to work in person and have fewer resources to spend on alternatives to screens.

Leading researchers like Twenge sounded early warnings that excessive smartphone use would likely have catastrophic consequences for teens’ well-being, and those seemingly alarmist warnings have been borne out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teenagers’ reported mental health concerns have spiked with only 47 percent of students reporting feeling connected to the adults and peers in their schools. Some 44 percent of high-school students reported feeling sad or persistently hopeless in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control

The explosion of the TikTok fad is not only a prime example of the pervasive impact of mobile phone culture but demonstrates how today’s kids can get hooked on continuous social media feeds. Peering inside the “TikTok Brain,” neuroscientists have shown that “the dopamine rush of endless short videos” makes it hard for young viewers to switch their focus to slower-moving, teacher-guided activities. “We’ve made kids live in a candy store,” is how it was described in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal

Screen time is crowding out teaching and learning, most notable in declining reading proficiency. Spending so much time on mobile phones, even without social media, adversely affects attention and concentration skills, making it harder to focus fully on any task and maintain that focus. When students are simply unable to focus or pay attention, learning to read through systematic literacy programs or tackling more rigorous academic tasks in higher grades becomes doubly difficult for teachers in today’s classrooms. 

Focusing exclusively on banning or limiting cellphones sparks much debate, but it often misses the point. Doing so is more of a quick fix when the problem is far wider in societal culture and runs much deeper in schools. “If you want kids to pay attention,” Cincinnati pediatrician and literacy specialist John S. Hutton advises us, then students “need to practice paying attention.” Turning the phones off is wise, but only the beginning in the post-pandemic struggle to foster what Teach Like a Champion calls “habits of attention” and to reclaim today’s students. Recognizing this as a “wicked problem” is the first step in addressing it in our schools. 

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