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Are we creating tech rich crazy people?

Have you ever been sitting in a meeting and felt your phone vibrate, take it out and discover that, in fact, it hadn’t actually vibrated?

Yeah. Me too.

There’s a name for it. Researchers are calling it “phantom vibration syndrome,” the sensation and false belief that you hear your phone ringing or feel it vibrating, when in fact the phone is not. And it’s not necessarily a good thing.

It means you’re hooked. It means your brain has been re-wired based on your use of technology. You have been “dragged to (technology) by the potential of short term rewards. Every ping can be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the call.”

According to two recent Chinese studies, excessive technology and internet use result in changes in areas of the brain charged with attention, control, and executive function. These “structural abnormalities in gray matter” mean a 10-20 percent shrinkage of those parts of the brain. These changes are eerily similar to changes observed in the brains of drug addicts and alcoholics. People can’t focus, can’t pay attention, can’t think critically.

Research published within the last month by Missouri State University documents the high levels of depression among heavy internet users. One of the study’s subjects maintains four avatars, keeping each virtual world open on his computer, along with his school work, email, and favorite videogames. He told researchers:

My real life is just another window and it’s usually not my best one.

But this goes beyond just issues of personal use. As educators, we need to be asking some serious questions about the current research concerning technology’s impact on attention, deep thinking, reflection, and concentration.

And I’m part of the problem. I mean, just look at the title and tagline of this website. The whole point of History Tech is to talk about ways to integrate technology into the teaching of history and social studies.

I’ve been pushing the use of technology in schools for years. Now? I’ll admit it. I’ve got concerns.

Not concerns about the appropriate use of technology in schools. I truly believe that a healthy balance of technology can improve and encourage high levels of learning. What I’m becoming more concerned about is the research documenting what can happen when the balance is not healthy.

I’ve written about this before here, here, and here.

But a recent Newsweek article highlights a whole boatload of new research. And what it’s telling me is that we need to have more conversations about what appropriate use of technology looks like in schools and, if we’re not careful, we may be adding to the problem that many of our students have with technology overdose.

I push the idea of mobile devices such as iPads as learning tools but I also push the idea that schools should not be buying them (or any other sort of technology) if they’re not really sure how the devices are going to be used. I had a recent conversation with a school administrator who was planning to purchase a large number of interactive white boards simply because

everyone else has them.

If the only reason you plan to use technology is because “everyone else is doing it,” we’re part of the problem. We need to be clear about how, when, and how much technology will be used in our buildings. We need to plan to balance tech use with deep reflection activities and group conversations that happen face-to-face. We need to understand that tech use does not always equal higher levels of thinking.

We need to be aware that technology use is not the silver bullet for improving learning. Appropriate use by trained teachers is.

A few quick suggestions:

  • Be intentional about the use of technology and the web as part of your instruction. Clearly understand what your goal is for its use.
  • Institute tech breaks as part of your normal teaching routine. Allow kids one minute to two minutes to check texts, etc at the start of class and then require devices to be turned off and upside down in front of you. Every 15-20 minutes, allow another one to two minute tech break. Use this method to train your kids that the downside of not checking in every five seconds isn’t as bad as they thought. Eventually you can lengthen the time without breaks to 30 minutes.

A recent article over at Edudemic also seems useful. They’ve put together a handy infographic that provides suggestions and ideas of how to stay focused “in an age of distraction.” The infographic breaks up your day into six categories:

  • Managing your space
  • How to work
  • Create rituals and habits
  • Managing email
  • Take time to reflect and review
  • Help for addicts
  • Take a digital technology detox


It seems like the balance I’m looking for – acknowledging the fact that technology is necessary but understanding that we have to be careful how we use it.

And it can help us start to have more intentional discussions about the appropriate use of technology in our classrooms.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mary Cronk Farrell #

    Thanks for addressing this topic, Glenn. Please tell me more about the idea of “tech breaks”–allowing kids the chance every 20-minutes or so to check their texts or whatever. Have you seen that this does indeed train them to stop checking so often? I’m very curious about this.

    July 17, 2012
    • glennw #


      I’ve seen in work in professional settings and know teachers who have tried it in school settings. But I haven’t personally used it in a classroom setting myself. And like any strategy, it’s not gonna work for every kid every time. But I like the idea because it’s telling kids that we’re working on this together, I understand the need to connect but that there is a time and a place for connecting and a time/place for learning.

      It also sets teachers up for using the technology as part of instruction. The message is that the technology is important but needs to be used appropriately. When we’re doing whole group instruction or you’re doing group work, texting is not appropriate (you just had a tech break 10 minutes ago) but when we’re doing a class survey and using PollEverywhere, yes – get out your phones, now is a perfect time for technology and learning to work together.

      For me, tech breaks send a message that we’re doing this school stuff together and we’re trusting each other to work on appropriate stuff at appropriate times.


      July 17, 2012
  2. Mary Cronk Farrell #

    Thanks, Glenn. Sounds good to me.

    July 17, 2012
  3. It’s so important to have common agreements as to the use of technology. Our school has initiated “screen-free” times and zones. Nothing oppressive – just trying to keep it all balanced in a 1:1 environment.

    July 19, 2012
    • glennw #

      Love the idea of “screen free” zones! It is all about agreements and clear expectations between faculty/staff and students. (And parents!)

      Thanks for the great idea!


      July 19, 2012

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