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5 ways teachers can model positive digital habits

May 11, 2022

This week we celebrate Digital Wellness Day, a global initiative that encourages people to analyze and optimize their relationship with the digital world by taking a mindful approach to how we interact with technology. 

The overarching goal of Digital Wellness Day is to learn and share best practices in digital wellness, highlight the positive attributes of technology, and learn how to avoid harmful practices and habits. 

"Teachers are uniquely positioned to help students achieve healthy digital habits,” says digital wellness expert and psychologist Teodora Pavkovic. “But before they do that, it’s important for them to understand and adopt digital wellness practices themselves.”

The modeling theory

In education, “modeling” is an instructional technique where teachers show students how something is done by complementing visual aid with verbal guidance.  Modeling is rooted in psychologist Albert Bandura’s “Social Learning Theory,” where he observed that learning is often done simply by observing. By watching how other people act and behave, students can learn new behaviors and information. 

In schools, modeling is often used to demonstrate a skill. For example, an art teacher might demonstrate how to draw a self portrait by using lines, circles, grids, and other techniques. A math teacher might show students how to perform a complicated equation by illustrating simple numbers tricks on the chalkboard or screen.

No matter how modeling is introduced into the classroom, it happens every day. 

Children—particularly primary school students—are highly sensitive to learning new things. They pick up on what they see, even if it isn’t intentionally taught. For example, a student may have never played baseball, but after watching several baseball games, they would likely be able to imitate the batting motion accurately. 

We know that students spend half their waking hours with their teachers; you can use the theory of modeling to positively change your own tech habits, and by doing so, influence your students too.

Be the change you want to see

In the modern educational environment, digital wellness is more important than ever. Technology and curriculum are intertwined; today, students are not only learning digitally, but expressing themselves digitally, too. 

Every teacher and school leader wants their students to demonstrate good digital citizenship. However, as the old adage goes, teachers are encouraged to “be the change you want to see.” 

Although students are uniquely impacted by the increasing adoption of digital devices in and outside of the classroom, teachers are also impacted. For many teachers, the swift adoption of school-issued devices, growth of EdTech, and increased reliance on remote learning has been challenging. 

Therefore, it’s important for teachers to practice digital wellness themselves, set technological boundaries in their personal lives, and ultimately, model positive digital wellness to their school community. 

With that in mind, here are five digital wellness tips that Pavkovic recommends teachers adopt and model for their students

Reflect on how technology makes you feel

Understanding how technology makes you feel is the foundation of good digital wellness. 

“Ask yourself the question of when your technology leaves you feeling better (in the sense of calmer, more productive, better connected, and inspired) and when it leaves you feeling worse (in the sense of more tired, irritable, angry, or sad),” says Pavkovic. 

As you assess your relationship with technology, take note of which behaviors leave you feeling depleted, unproductive, sad, or unfulfilled. If you tend to feel worse after binge-scrolling through social media, this is a clear sign that you should reduce the amount of time you spend on social apps.

Change notification permissions

According to Google, the average smartphone user has 35 applications on their device. Another study published by Duke University found that the average smartphone user in the United States gets between 65-80 push notifications per day. This constant bombardment of alerts can quickly lead to an unhealthy relationship with technology.

“Check your devices to see which apps and platforms have the permission to send you notifications,” says Pavkovic. “Bring this number down to as few apps and platforms as possible.”

Eliminate notifications from apps you don’t use regularly or from apps you want to decrease time usage on (you can check your screen time usage on many smartphones to identify where the majority of your mobile time is going).” 

Apply this to your email inbox(es) as well. Platforms like Google already separate social and promotional emails from your primary email, but you can take this a step further by creating email filters to prevent unimportant communication from reaching your primary inbox. This also helps you stay more organized.

Avoid multitasking with tech

Multitasking and technology addition are strongly linked and digital overconsumption can easily occur with multi-tasking. 

“Whenever you can, keep your work, social, and entertainment tech use separate,” notes Pavkovic. “For example, avoid streaming shows and movies while working, or scrolling through Instagram Reels while watching a movie.”

Not all multitasking is harmful. However, technology-heavy multitasking can disrupt your thought process, reduce your brain’s capacity to store relevant information, and even lower your IQ. 

Research from the University of Sussex in the UK found that high-performing multi-taskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex area of the brain; a region responsible for empathy and cognitive control.

Set screen-free boundaries

There’s a reason the phrase “glued to the screen” has become a common idiom in modern language. According to DataReportal, the average American person spends 7 hours and four minutes staring at a screen each day and the average British person spends 6 hours and 12 minutes of screen time per day.

Longer periods of screen time have been linked to depression, obesity, chronic neck and back problems, and other physical and mental health issues. 

“Consider blocking out a few hours of screen time every week,” says Pavkovic. “Feel free to engage with tech in other forms if you'd like, such as listening to music or to an audiobook.”

Try to make a habit of avoiding screen-free time before bed, particularly as it relates to work-related screen time (i.e, grading homework), news-related screen time, and unimportant tasks (i.e., scrolling through social media). Setting these boundaries can easily translated into your classroom. 

For instance, you shouldn’t post assignments on Google Classroom or respond to student emails during late afternoon hours. Talk candidly about the tech boundaries you’ve set for yourself and encourage your students to adopt similar healthy habits online.

Re-visit offline hobbies

Think back to a time before technology was dominant in everyday life. How did you spend your time? What hobbies did you enjoy? Reading books, hiking, playing sports, painting, knitting? Are there extracurricular activities or hobbies you’ve always wanted to try?

Having hobbies that live outside of devices can help improve your overall mental well-being, grow stronger in-person social relationships, improve work performance, and increase happiness. Like a domino effect, each of these benefits help cultivate a better relationship with technology.

Healthy tech vs. anti-tech

Digital wellness isn’t about eliminating technology in every possible place. 

“It's helpful to think of 'digital wellness' as something you can achieve in many different ways, and in many different areas of your life,” Pavkovic notes. “You have more options than to just ‘switch the device off,’ although that can work well, too.”

Digital wellness takes some practice and doesn’t happen overnight. Changing any habit or behavior can be challenging. 

Begin your digital wellness journey by conducting a self-audit of your tech habits. Think of it like a science experiment you might teach during the lab or a math graph you might ask a student to plot at school. 

Analyze your screen time data and dedicate yourself to healthy, tech-positive goals. It might help to make incremental changes over the course of several weeks until you reach that goal. Then compare your screen time usage from the past to your current  usage. 

Screen time statistics on a mobile device

Bettering digital wellness isn’t all about decreasing screen time, but assessing screen time is a good barometer of your current tech habits. The question is: Can I decrease the amount of time I spend engaging in screen time activities that don’t serve me particularly well, and increase the time spent with those that do?

Technology gives us the power to learn about ourselves; when you begin to formulate hypotheses about your existing habits surrounding technology, you can use that information to make measurable, impactful, and better-informed decisions surrounding your relationship with technology. 

Topics: Digital Wellness

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