Distance learning is a major challenge that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both schools and students have struggled with creating engaging learning environments without being in a classroom. During the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, Healdsburg Unified School District saw a major drop in student grades which led to both students and teachers working to come up with solutions to keep students more engaged. Without being in a classroom, it has been hard for students to stay motivated and get work done, especially with the distractions that exist in students' homes.
A recent survey conducted by the Healdsburg High School (HHS) Journalism staff surveyed 103 students and found that 74.3% of students claim to have interference in their homes such as discomfort or various responsibilities that make it more difficult to get their work done. Although 51.5% of that 74.3% said that they have the means of managing these distractions. Home is not a place that many students are used to getting large amounts of school work done. School can feel irrelevant or unimportant when students are surrounded by so many distractions.
One of the biggest distractions that can be detrimental to the effectiveness of distance learning is technology. Addictive social media apps can suck students in for hours on end especially when there is nobody around to actually force students to complete their work. The HHS survey found that 68% of students averaged at least five hours of screen time during the previous week, with 23.8% of that group spending over eight hours on a phone per day. This survey was only asking for average screen time on a phone so this does not include screen time spent on computers completing schoolwork, unless some students who were surveyed have to do school on a phone. This was also only measuring phone time, and not time that may have been spent watching television, on a video game console or on a personal computer, which could add up to even more entertainment screen time.
Over eight hours spent looking at a phone is a very long time, and 23.8% is a large portion of students. When the survey asked what kind of app was most used in the previous week, 48.5% of students answered social apps while 44.6% of students answered entertainment apps. These trends tell us that students are spending more time than they need to distract themselves for pleasure.
During a pandemic when nobody can really go out, it would make sense that everyone would be spending more time than average on screens. In defense of people who spend 8 hours a day looking at a phone, there really doesn’t seem to be anything better to do. So if there is enough free time for eight hours of entertainment each day, then why aren’t students thriving in school?
Of students interviewed, 52.5% estimated that they have somewhere between 1-3 hours of homework to complete each day, with another 17.5% estimating 3-4 hours. In theory, if there were no interferences out of the students’ control (77.2% of students); students should have more than enough time to complete all of this work on time, based on the amount of time each day that is dedicated to entertainment compared to the amount of time needed to complete schoolwork. Mr. Warf, a history teacher at HHS commented that “Students submit less work during distance learning than they do during in person classes.” Clearly the distractions of entertainment are having larger effects during distance learning than previously during normal school.
24.5% of students said that procrastination is a major issue that prevents them from getting work done while another 44.1% said that they procrastinate often but still manage to get some work done. This procrastination comes from an abundance of time as well as the addictiveness of certain apps.
With the abundance of time brought by the pandemic, it is easy to fall into a mindset of putting off a task until later because of the vast amount of time that is available to complete it. This leads to students putting it off until they have no time left to do it.
The addictiveness of certain social media and entertainment apps is a major problem and is a leading reason for such high amounts of screen time in teens. Studies by King University have shown social media apps such as TikTok or Instagram trigger the brain’s reward system by releasing dopamine. People want more of the dopamine release that is offered by these apps so they keep coming back from more, partially due to the strategically addictive layouts of these apps. This means that in terms of brain chemistry, social media and screen addictions can be very similar to nicotine and cocaine addictions, just with less of the harmful effects that come from those substances. It is surprising that these widespread media addictions among young people are not as widely addressed.
Long amounts of time spent on screens for entertainment has long been a problem for teens. A survey conducted by Common Sense Media in 2015 found that American teenagers spend on average eight hours and 56 minutes on some form of entertainment media that is not school-related. It is not surprising then, that the CDC finds that 72.7% of high school students do not get enough sleep on school nights. This screen time can also take away from time that adolescents should be spending being active, being outdoors, and socializing.
Spending that much time on entertainment clearly has negative effects. Our survey found that 62.1% of students are stressed or anxious about all of the schoolwork they have to get done at this time, even though according to the rest of our data if the majority of these students just cut a few hours out of their screen time they would have no problem completing their schoolwork. This is a lot easier said than done.
It is easy to try to blame the corporations who are designing addictive apps for these problems, but that likely will not really get us anywhere. Giving students more to do could actually help them become more motivated to get off of the phone and therefore more productive. Assigning more work would obviously generate significant objection, but the implementation of creative programs could seriously benefit the lives of students as well as the general community.
There is a lack of creative programs such as art clubs and art challenges or events happening in HUSD at the moment. These kinds of clubs and activities could give students something to be excited about, could connect the community more and could help add more structure to students' days, reducing opportunities for mind-numbing distractions. Sports have been hard to continue during the pandemic, but clubs or fun challenges could easily be done virtually. More encouragement or incentive to participate in and organize student-led clubs is an easy step HHS could take to enrich distance learning and students' lives during the pandemic.
The new HHS schedule has been very effective as the majority of students approve of it and are enjoying its benefits. The practical next step forward from that schedule is starting to rebuild the community that was lost due to the pandemic so that a stronger community with more activities can emerge from the aftermath. Art should be incentivized more as it is an important part of the human experience and can be very beneficial to growing adolescents. Seeing the school district create more activities and events that encourage student participation would be very beneficial to general gloom brought about by the pandemic. Sports are starting to practice again, which will also help the situation.
In general, there is a lack of concern for the amount of time students spend entertaining themselves with screens. School districts like HUSD can move in the right direction by starting to encourage more useful activities such as art or reading, and by discouraging students from spending painful amounts of time staring at screens.
Harrison Threlfall is a sophomore at Healdsburg High School, and is currently part of Healdsburg High School’s journalism class.