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Author: Thea Nicholas
Source: Cool Australia
Date: 19 July, 2013

Teachers – we’ve all been there.

You’re up the front of the classroom delivering a stimulating lesson on Newton’s Third Law, and you see little Timmy’s pencil cases light up, vibrate and give a little ‘ping’. Then, when you try to confiscate the iPhone and reprimand Timmy for the disruption to your riveting class – he chucks a wobbly and acts like you’re attempting to remove his left foot.

This all-to-familiar scenario was disturbed when we challenged my environmental science students to conduct a technology-free experiment. The kids all committed (with a little coaxing) to ‘unplugging’ from all screen-based devices for a week as a social experiment. And guess what? None of the kids spontaneously combusted – not one! 

Students giving up their gadgets for week free of technology

The point of the experiment was to highlight the two competing tensions at play within schools and families. On one hand, technology is viewed as a valuable tool that delivers information to the classroom and engages kids in learning. On the other, there is growing concern about the amount of time teenagers spend on Facebook, their mobile phones and online games.

Our class set out the aims, hypothesis and method of our experiment. In a nutshell we decided we wanted to know more about the consequences of too much screen time (if any) on our personal health and connection to other people. We also wanted to investigate if an over-exposure to technology created an under-exposure to nature and life outdoors.

I would like to say that all the students were keen as mustard to do a screens-off experiment. However, I think anyone that has ever met a teenager before would know that not all would relish the opportunity. But we persevered, because I felt it was incredibly important for these kids to stop and critically evaluate the decision they make in their day-to-day lives. The lessons that they learn from this experience could be life changing, perhaps even more life changing then learning about Newton’s Laws! 

So how did they go?

One student, Nick had a birthday on the third day of the experiment. He found it very tough that morning, as he knew he would receive a flood of birthday wishes as text messages or on Facebook. It is not the lack of Facebook love that troubled him, but the feeling that he will be seen to be ignoring the well-wishers by not replying instantly. Unfortunately, the social pressure got to Nick and he caved. Result: 3 days screen free.

Thea Nicholas with her students who pledge to be gadget free for a week

One of the girls, Sarah estimated she would normally spend up to eight hours each day using her phone. Sarah relies on technology for almost everything, without even realising it. She uses her phone mostly to send text messages, check Facebook, email and uses the Internet to help with their homework. By the second Sarah began to feel extremely bored and frustrated because she hadn’t talked to most of her friends, which she normal does through texting and Facebook.

Interestingly, Sarah doesn’t use her mobile phone to actually call anyone. She say’s “the only person I ring is my mum to pick me up from the shops or friends house”. Gone are the days, where you’d get home from school and race to the landline phone (which was attached to the kitchen wall with 4 metres of curly cord) to call your best friend even though you spent the entire school day with her.

Sarah did report that she enjoyed the experience and said she spent more time with her parents and walking the dog. She also said that she slept better at night and was more productive during the school day. Sarah thought this was a great experience to be a part of and she felt she got a lot out of it.

She said, I never realised how much I depended on technology. I definitely recommend this challenge to other students so they can see for themselves how technology dramatically impacts their lives. Despite enjoying the experiences, Sarah caved. Result: 5 days screen free.

So did any of the teenagers last the week without screens?

Out of 26 students only one girl made it the whole seven days – Jess. She found it to be incredibly tough and she often felt socially isolated and bored. Jess explained how she had to lock herself in the bathroom one night because each room in her house had a screen and her family was utilising all of them. Jess said that she learnt how reliant she was on screens for entertainment, learning and keeping in the loop with news. During the screen-free week she spent her time cooking with her grandparents, doing homework and going on long walks.

When I asked Jess what she thought the consequences where for kids being ‘plugged in’, she said “I worry about what my friends are missing out on. When I sit outside among the trees I feel relaxed and happy. But no one values nature and this scares me.” When Jess said this I felt a tingle run down my spine.

What she had learnt was invaluable. This type of experiential learning allowed her to critically evaluate what many people in society take for granted. And in my opinion this is a key skill our students will need in the future. Jess learnt a fundamentally important lesson (maybe more so than Newtons 2nd law).

So what did I learn?

Well most importantly, I learnt that students will not combust if you remove their iPhones – despite their OTT protests. What I knew is that young people are spending huge amounts of time connecting with other young people through their devices – unplugging is social suicide. If you take their devices away they feel isolated and bored.

On the flip side, when this happens young people go outside! They walk to the local creek. They kick a soccer ball around in the fresh air. They go for runs along the local creek. They play with their siblings outside. They experience nature and this is of vital importance because it gives them the opportunity to connect to nature and experience all the benefits that time in nature gives.

These benefits have been highlighted in an emerging body of local and international research linking childhood contact with nature to a range of health and wellbeing benefits. Including positive mental health outcomes, reduced stress levels, increased confidence, reduced risk of obesity, enhanced intellectual development and improved academic performance.

I have always been concerned with the disconnect between young people and nature, but I experienced the true extent of this when I took a group of Year 10 boys to rural Victoria. I was gobsmacked to learn that they couldn’t comprehend that the cows in a paddock would become the steak on their plate! If they couldn’t comprehend something as fundamental to their lives as the origins of their food, why would they be concerned with issues such as climate change, extinction and renewable energy?

When I was a whipper snapper I loved visiting my Grandma’s farm, I loved seeing the animals and investigating the remanent bushland. I worry that the only farm today’s kids will experience is a virtual farm when they are playing ‘SimFarm’ on their iPhones. I fear that if young people are not experiencing nature, they will not value it and therefore they will not protect it.

The ‘screens off’ experiment was a huge learning opportunity that raised the awareness of the students and the wider community. We were shocked at how ingrained technology and social media have become and how little time we spend amongst nature as a result of our screen time. By unplugging ourselves from our technology-bubble we experience an education that was emotionally engaging and linked to the real world.

For me, watching the students question their habitual use of technology and as a result, make autonomous decisions about their actions emphases the importance of teaching sustainability to young people. In say this, I still believe that technology is a valuable tool that delivers information to the classroom and engages kids in learning. But nature is also deeply valuable and can be used as a source of entertainment and education. This realisation for students is powerful enough to inspire them to think about their actions.

Our reliance on technology is fringing on the addictive and though the perks of technology are ample (especially for education), we are on the brink of a new reality. We find ourselves in a grey area between the natural and virtual world, which poses the question, what are the consequences and how do we move forward?

Thea Nicholas

School Engagement, Recruitment and Communications Manager – Cool Australia.

Science and Sustainability Educator.

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