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Finding the Sweet Spot of Technology in Education

Continuing on from our previous discussion on screen time… if eyesight isn’t the problem with screen time then what is? What do we need to be aware of and how do we navigate the technology labyrinth?

Quality vs Quantity

“…the more important concern surrounding the screen-time debate isn’t the time; it’s the quality of the content.”

Gwenn O’Keeffe, M.D., a pediatrician, fellow of the AAP and author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media.

For instance, playing an educational game on the iPad is a more effective means of learning than watching an educational program on TV simply because the iPad is more interactive.

Research has shown that kids engaged in interactive media appear to retain information better than their peers who passively watch.

Huffington Post

Also, simply having technology doesn’t improve learning. It all depends on the program in place.

…computers can be a real tool for learning—and computing is a valuable skill in its own right. But integrating computers in the schoolroom is hard work and is likely to succeed only when the basics are already there.


Therefore, if we’re going to approve screen time, we need to be selective about what we choose to expose our children to and how we go about it.

Digital Multitasking = Bad

We know that multi-tasking is bad

Researchers determined that the low multitaskers‘ group consistently outdid their highly multitasking counterparts on a series of classic psychology tests designed to assess attention and memory skills.

Open Education

Therefore it should come as no surprise that digital multi-tasking (where you’re working on an assignment on the computer while chatting online and talking on the mobile all at the same time) is also bad. It doesn’t matter what you’re multi-tasking, unless you are doing two very simple tasks that require different brain functions.

“Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan

One of the biggest problems with digital multi-tasking is that many students have the misguided belief that they multi-task well. We need to educate them on the very real and significant problems of digital multi-tasking. Students who multi-task:

  • take longer to complete the assignment
  • are more prone to making mistakes while working on their assignment
  • suffer from impaired recall – they either do not remember the information as clearly, or they don’t remember it at all
  • are less adept at applying the new knowledge to different contexts because the brain encodes memories in different, less useful ways when it is distracted

Coping Mechanisms for Digital Distractions

We live in an age of distraction and we need our children to learn how to focus. Since technology is here to stay, we need to teach our children coping mechanisms for dealing with digital distractions.

…students with relatively high use of study strategies were more likely to stay on-task than other students. The educational implications include allowing students short “technology breaks” to reduce distractions and teaching students metacognitive strategies regarding when interruptions negatively impact learning.

Science Direct

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, states that children need to learn how to concentrate and shut out distractions or they will have a much harder time succeeding in almost every area. To help children build up the neural circuitry that focused attention requires, Goleman recommends:

  • Exercises that strengthen attention, like mindfulness practices
  • Digital “time out” – having some time everyday when there are no digital distractions

In a longitudinal study conducted with over 1,000 children in New Zealand, children were measured for their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Researchers tracked those same children down at the age of 32 to see how well they fared in life. The ability to concentrate was the strongest predictor of success.


See also: 10 Tips to Help You Tune Out Distractions and Focus on Your Studies

No Electronics Before Sleep

Ideally, all use of devices should stop at least 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.

We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning. Use of light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime also increases alertness at that time, which may lead users to delay bedtime at home. Overall, we found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2014

The use of electronic devices before bedtime has a negative impact on sleep:

  • it delays on the onset of sleep by about 10 minutes
  • it reduces the quantity of REM sleep during the night
  • it takes users more time to feel alert in the morning
  • on the following night, users from the night before start take longer to feel tired – about 90 minutes longer

What’s the cause?

While all light at night can affect the body’s natural sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythms), it is the blue wavelengths that have the most significant affect. This may be blue light from electronic devices, such as back-lit eReaders, computers, TV, laptops, cell phones, LED monitors, etc., or it may also be blue light from energy-efficient light bulbs. Your child does not have to stare directly at the light for it to affect sleep – if enough blue light enters the eyes, it can inhibit the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. What makes it worse is that teenagers are more susceptible to the effects of blue light compared to adults.

exposing healthy subjects to 30 minutes of 500 lux polychromatic blue light an hour before bedtime, in their natural home environment, delayed the onset of rapid eye movement sleep by 30 minutes.

Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010

What’s so bad about it?

Study after study has linked working the night shift and exposure to light at night to several types of cancer (breast, prostate), diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It’s not exactly clear why nighttime light exposure seems to be so bad for us. But we do know that exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms, and there’s some experimental evidence (it’s very preliminary) that lower melatonin levels might explain the association with cancer.

Harvard Health Publications

What can we do about it?

  • If your child still requires a night light, use a dim red light because red lights have the least power to affect circadian rhythms.
  • No electronic devices two to three hours before bedtime.
  • Expose your child to lots of bright light during the day (i.e. get outdoors more), which will boost the ability to sleep at night, as well as mood and alertness during daylight.

Source: Harvard Health Publications

Moderation is the Key

At the end of the day, the best fall-back we can have is “moderation”. While technology may have revolutionised the way children are learning, we also have to remember that they need time away from their devices to learn other skills that they will require in order to become successful later in life.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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