American Students: Smartphone Experts Who Struggle in Reading and Math

Is the dramatic increase in teen smartphone and entertainment tech use contributing to their academic struggles? It's not the only factor, but it's a critical one.
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American teens' increasing access to smartphones is driving a meteoric rise in their entertainment tech use. The recently released Common Sense media report shows that teens now spend an incredible 6 hours and 40 minutes each day using video games, online videos, social media, and other screen self-amusements. Not counted in this total is the tremendous amount of time teens spend texting and talking on their phones. As our adolescents' lives become increasingly dominated by digital entertainment, what are the consequences?

An answer is found in another recently released report on U.S. teens: the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation's Report Card. This study reveals that 8th grade students' scores in reading and math dropped from the last time they were measured in 2013. A disturbing two-thirds of American 8th graders now score "below proficient" in reading, and this same percentage of students score "below proficient" in math.

Even before this recent drop, American students were struggling against their global competition. The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores from 2012 show that American 15-year-olds rank 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading compared to students from other countries that took the exam. This should be cause for alarm, as American schoolchildren must now compete with students from around the world for college admission and jobs.

Why Our Teens Are Falling Behind

Is the dramatic increase in teen smartphone and entertainment tech use contributing to their academic struggles? It's not the only factor, but it's a critical one. Smartphones provide teens 24/7 access to playtime technologies that research shows drag down their academic success. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: "The transformation of the cell phone into a media content delivery platform [has]... facilitated an explosion in [entertainment] media consumption among American youth," especially TV and video games. It's these high levels of TV, video games, and other entertainment technologies which displace teens' focus on school and hurt their academic performance.

What's confusing for parents is that they are told the latest technologies give students a learning advantage. Unfortunately, what's little mentioned is that our kids use their gadgets almost exclusively to play around. As noted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, while kids spend 8 hours a day playing with entertainment screens and texting and talking on the phone, they only spend 16 minutes a day using the computer at home for school.

The negative impact of heavy teen smartphone use on academics is clear in my work as a child and adolescent psychologist. When I ask teens to describe their afterschool schedules, they often say, "Oh, I come home from school, grab a snack, and then I'm on my phone for most of the night." I ask kids when they study or do homework, "Oh, sometimes late at night... if I have time." What these kids don't realize is that a college education is remarkably important today, and that colleges gauge admission based upon teens' grasp of school-taught fundamentals, including reading, math, and science.

Who Is Most Hurt by Tech Overuse?

I work with teens from all walks of life whose chances of academic success are spoiled by their overuse of digital technologies. But it's kids of color and those from low-income families who are disproportionately affected. The new Common Sense media report found that Black teens average 8 hours and 26 minutes per day with entertainment screen technologies as compared with 6 hours and 18 minutes for White teens. These screen/tech-use differences are a significant factor contributing to racial achievement disparities: According to the latest Nation's Report Card report, 16% of Black 8th graders are "proficient" in reading as compared with 44% of White students, and 13% of Black 8th graders are "proficient" in math as compared with 43% of White students.

Why do teens of color and kids from low-income families spend a greater amount of time using tech and screens? Less advantaged parents I work with tell me that they can't afford the extracurricular activities that can keep kids from turning to screens and phones. Also, more affluent families I work with have greater access to high-performing schools, college counselors, and other resources that can help parents understand the importance of limiting screen/phone time in order to foster teens' school success.

How Can We Help Our Teens Achieve Learning Success?

Much of the blame for our teens' learning struggles wrongly falls on schools. I believe we should do all we can to ensure our nation's schools are adequately funded. Yet, as three-time Pulitzer prize winner Thomas Friedman and Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum advise in their book That Used To Be Us, adding resources to education won't help unless American students dramatically cut back on their amusement-based tech habits and instead focus on school.

I suggest that schools take a leadership role in helping parents understand that home factors, especially teens' access to screens and phones, play a powerful role in their learning success. At back-to-school nights and other parent-teacher gatherings, schools should help parents realize this basic formula: parents' limits on entertainment technologies will lead kids to receive higher grades and test scores.

Schools will also help teens by talking directly with them. Teens are just not getting the message that their endless hours spent gaming, social networking, texting, and watching online videos can cost them the goals they have set for themselves, including getting into college.

Families from less advantaged families may need extra support to help kids power down their devices and pick up their schoolbooks. As a society, we need to do a better job of offering teens quality enrichment experiences, such as afterschool screen- and phone-free study sessions, that give teens the space they need to learn and achieve their goals.

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