The digital gap is increasing — we need to act now!
Why screen time is harming an entire generation and questions we should find answers to.
You’re looking at this screen, reading my words. You’re giving me your most valuable asset. It’s non-renewable and strictly limited: your focused attention. By giving me the next minutes of your attention, you will understand which questions decision-makers around the globe should be figuring out to answer right now.
Every morning, 7:30 AM, when I used to approach the school building (before COVID-19), there was an odd silence. Students stood quietly, almost neatly aligned in a row, laid against the wall. Hardly aware of their surroundings, these students had hands and eyes glued to their smartphone screens. When I asked my teenage students about their hobbies, the most common answer, “watching my phone” or as they like to label themselves “Miss Keiffenheim, we are hobby free persons.”
According to research, a typical teen in the U.S. spends 7 hours 40 minutes a day in front of screens. And there is a digital gap among different income levels. Teens from lower-income families spend 8 hours, 7 minutes in front of screens compared to their higher-income peers who have a screen time of only 5 hours, 42 minutes. Moreover, Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.
House quarantine could be a key driver in a digital gap increase. As socio-economically privileged families have more living space than socio-economically less privileged families, the activity options besides “smartphone watching and gaming” vary significantly. There is no research yet, but my guess is, that in house quarantine Maximilian-Leopold (sorry for stereotyping) is currently playing the piano or reading a book, while Kev is still sleeping because he played Fortnite until dawn.
But what should we do about the excessive amount of time teens spend in front of screens? Should we blame parents for not restricting the screen time of their children? Or are our teens too weak-willed because they can’t take their eyes off of phones? I’m not here to blame anyone.
A decade ago, I was addicted to my phone and social media with real-life consequences such as exam failure, anxiety, and diagnosed depression. Still, a spark of interest for the unknown pushed me to dig deeper into the science behind my technology behavior. In the following years, I read books on persuasive technology and the art of deep focus (booklist at the end of this article, and watched online and offline experts talking about topics like How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day. Here’s the quintessence of what I learned:
We live in an “attention economy”, in which businesses make money by developing technology that attracts and retains attention for as long as possible. Tech companies are very good at retaining our attention by using different hooking mechanisms and persuasive design.
Since 2018, through my work as Teach for All Fellow, I became aware of problematic phone usage among 10–14-year-olds. Here is a list of screen-related behavior I witnessed in my classroom every day: Teens crying and being angry when teachers took their phones away. Tired students were self-reporting to watch their smartphones instead of sleeping. I witnessed 7-second attention spans and the desire for instant gratification.
Mental Threats associated with screen time
As these examples demonstrate, the attention economy poses mental threats to an entire generation. Recent research shows that young females who spend more time using social media or smartphones and other devices are at a higher risk for depression and suicide-related behaviors compared with teen girls who spend less time in front of screens. Moreover, by regularly checking their phone, children condition their minds for self-interruption, even so far that GPA can drop, and deep-thinking ability vanishes.
“A systematic review and meta-analysis showed strong and consistent evidence of an association between access to or the use of devices and reduced sleep quantity and quality, as well as increased daytime sleepiness.”
Let’s wrap up:
- Attention is our most valuable asset as it is non-renewable and every person has the same amount of it
- Kids around the world spend a large portion of every day on their screen with an increasing digital gap between lower- and higher-income families.
- Excessive screen time can have a severe effect on mental health
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this screentime dilemma. I tried different self-experiments, like restricting my phone use and deleting all social media accounts. I also started larger-scale projects like the Phocus App that incentivizes users for less screen time. What I can say for sure is that abandoning phones out of schools is not serving any educational purpose. Instead, education stakeholders and decision-makers around the world should start exploring questions like:
“How can we raise awareness for the risks associated with excessive screen use?”
“How can we incentivize tech companies to not hook children’s on their screens?”
“How can we counterfeit the increasing equality gap that tech poses on our society?”
In addition to individuals taking action, we need a broad awareness of the impact screen time has on learning and equality. Join me in educating parents, schools, and decision-makers about the importance of attention training on our agendas! Thank you.
“The key to be thriving in our high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology instead of more”.
— Cal Newport
5 Books I can recommend:
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
- Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
- Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
- Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
- How to Break Up with your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life
- Bowles, N. (2018, October 26). The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected.
- Carter, Rees & Hale (2016, December). Association Between Portable Scree-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes.
- Davis, R. (2015, September 23). Social media use may lead to poor grades.
- Duke, E., Montag, C. (2017, December). Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions, and self-reported productivity.
- Ehmke, R. (2018, October 23). How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers.
- The associations between social-media use and academic performance among undergraduate students in biology. (n.d.).
- Walton, A. G. (2017, October 03). 6 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health. Retrieved from
- The role of social media in higher education classes (real and virtual) — A literature review. (2013, January 26).