The screen-time dilemma: Digitally driven learning disengagement

Written by: Claire Orange | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In the past five years, Claire Orange has seen a diabolical shift in childhood’s goalposts through increasing screen-time in many families. This is leading to learning disengagement in primary school classrooms…

Shall we talk about the ugly truth of digitally driven educational disengagement in our classrooms?

Any teacher with students in the upper years of primary school will be able to tell stories of children who simply find everything boring, boring, boring. If there is no rapid-fire, always fun, never-repetitive content then it is immediately boring. And even if interest is piqued at the lesson outset, it is not maintained for very long and the achievement of lesson objectives falls into the dark abyss of failed lesson plans.

The iPad generation

This generation of young learners is the first to have grown up fully digitally immersed right from birth. In fact, according to Parent Zone’s recent Sensible Sharing research, many children sitting in classrooms will have more than 1,500 pictures of themselves posted online by their fifth birthday

The research into early and frequent access to screens tends to document the same outcomes on the impact on the developing brain. Too much screen exposure, too soon for developing brains means that the development of key life-skills accessed through play-based learning and rich family interactions take a hit (Ruder, 2019).

These skills – empathy, language, social skills, fine motor skills (and the list goes on) – are those that promote readiness for the demands of classroom and playground life, and all too often classroom teachers are left to teach these skills to enable appropriate early learning and socialisation to happen.

What about upper primary students?

As children enter the upper years of primary school, their brains and bodies are undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis. In fact, outside of the first two years of life, this is the fastest that their body and brain will change for the rest of their lives.

These are the years that children are learning about themselves, their moral compass, and their identity in the world. It is usually accompanied by social dramas and tussles as this often-messy learning informs them about their sorts of people and relationships, where they sit in the social hierarchy, and how to massage and manipulate relationships for best (not always sensible) outcomes. It is little surprise that when this plays out online, the results are often emotionally devastating for young ones still learning.

With a huge increase of these young people engaging in the online space in a multiplicity of ways (some of this driven or at least increased by the pandemic), the self and social learning of this generation of young people has changed remarkably.

Never in human history has there been a forum to post raw and unprocessed emotional content that can gather likes, shares, and haters like the internet.

Frustratingly, there is a rich reward for poor behaviour that is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to teach in real life. In real life we encourage children to slow down and think before saying or doing something. We teach and model self-regulation and show children how that helps them to learn and make friends. We encourage children to think through the consequences of their choices and to take responsibility for them as part of their life learning.

The online spaces that children find themselves spending time in – Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Kick, Roblox and in games like League of Legends and Fortnite – all train children in skills that simply work against everything we teach them in real life.

The louder, nastier, more outrageous, and edgy you are, the greater your followers and their adulation. Every tap on a screen driving the reward chemical in the human brain – dopamine – higher and higher until it becomes so exhilarating and addictive that nothing else measures up.

Brains, dopamine, and classroom disengagement

Unless your teachers are starting each lesson with the latest crazy dance move, trending video on YouTube or running through the classroom gunning down enemies and planning the next rapid-fire engagement with the death squad, it probably immediately rates as boring with many children.

Times tables, unfortunately, never get more exciting – but they do, with practice and application, improve a child’s mathematical reasoning skills. But there are no dance moves and no gunning down – boring! Hand-writing – another one of those perpetual primary school touch points that needs attention but really doesn’t rate on the excito-meter in the school day.

In fact, there is much in the regular classroom that requires a child to attend even when the content is not exhilarating and for a longer period of time than the average multi-screen session of whizzing at lightning speed between apps and entertainment.

Many of today’s children have never had the opportunity to learn from being bored. Their brains have been systematically trained in on-screen outside classroom hours to churn through copious amounts of data, delivered in bite-sized, high impact ways that don’t open the space for boredom because skipping to the next content is as easy as the flick on a finger.

It is then little wonder that digitally driven educational disengagement is on the rise?

Dopamine is the reward and attention neurotransmitter used by the pre-frontal cortex to regulate mood and attention, to build resilience, to cope with frustration, disappointment, and boredom, to think critically and to problem-solve.

When dopamine levels are high, attention is focused. Using the child with ADHD is a good way to demonstrate the flow of dopamine in the brain. Low dopamine flow and uptake leads to an inattentive child, difficult to focus and engage even when a stick and carrot approach is used. Yet when that child is interested in something, they can hyperfocus, drowning out all other stimuli until they know every single fact about dinosaurs/Thomas the Tank Engine/weather systems…

These children often want to focus on this area of hyperfocus to the exclusion of all else because it feels fantastic to be in that head space. This is dopamine at work.

Every human likes the effect of dopamine in the brain – we get things done which drives our motivation. It is very rewarding. Children regularly accessing rapid-fire online content often have high levels of dopamine and this can become an addiction – just like a substance addiction except this is a behavioural one. In fact, gaming addiction has now been listed as a diagnosable condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Little human brains exposed to high levels of very rewarding dopamine in the brain want more of it. And of course, their apps and games are programmed to keep their eyes glued to the screen by dropping in dopamine hits and rewards – like new skins, avatar updates, cool backgrounds, improved speed of access and so on.

So how then does the average classroom lesson stack up?

Sadly, not well. Digitally driven disengagement is happening right under our noses in every classroom because young brains used to high levels of dopamine, and without enough life training to sustain attention, are simply fading out early in the lesson. This is not fault of the classroom teacher, rather it is the fault of a society which has put devices into the hands of little children without fully understanding the impact on the developing brain and body.

Some strategies to engage learners

Dopamine uppers

Dopamine is the neurochemical used to regulate attention by the brain’s pre-frontal cortex. High levels of dopamine are present when children are stimulated online – it is rewarding and addictive.

So, in the classroom, try regular movement breaks, student-driven investigation, using humour and competition, and learning and mindset training for tolerating and overcoming boredom as ways to help the dopamine-deflated child to re-engage.

Educating the child on how their brain works and how technology changes it is also exceptionally important. We all want our young ones to be thoughtful and critical consumers of online content and teaching them about managing their screen time is an essential part of this process.

  • Children’s movement breaks: Aim to include a brief movement break every 15 to 20 minutes. It can be as simple as three moves in a “Simple Simon” game or running around a chair. Movement stimulates the production and uptake of dopamine.
  • Educator movement in the room: For children used to gaming or watching hours of dance moves on TikTok, the stationary, sedentary teacher ushers in a learning coma. Moving about while teaching, teaching from different places in the room, and using objects moving through space – moving a talking stick, catching a ball to respond – stimulates dopamine uptake in the brain.
  • Interest: Including a well-placed joke or something amusing and entertaining is a great dopamine driver. Riddles, mysteries, and puzzles are all ways to increase interest.

Routine regulators

The feeling that something is going to go on and on can put learners off before they have even begun. Online, they can open another screen and watch something else in the “boring” bits, or simply scan for content that is more exciting and immediately rewarding.

So, you might display the day’s routine at the beginning of the day so that learners can anticipate how much time they will be spending on a single subject. This encourages the child more used to moving from stimulation to stimulation to mentally plan ahead.

Resilience builders

The reality is that some work just needs to get done – even if it is not wildly exciting. Building a growth mindset capacity for doing hard things is a life-skill.

Teach and display “thinking” strategies that increase higher frustration-tolerance. Positive, no-nonsense, and helpful “super thinking” can be dropped into the beginning of each lesson to help every child to manage their tolerance of repetition and boredom.

  • The sooner I start, the sooner I finish.
  • Effort equals outcome.
  • Nothing lasts forever.

Project-based learning

Responding positively to didactic styles of content delivery seems now far removed from the 21st century child used to asking Alexa for answers to life’s big questions. Planning, problem-solving and collaboratively finding resources encourages children to utilise skills perfected on the internet while gaming or socialising. If we are to use the positives of digital life to our best advantage in education, this is certainly a great way to start.

  • Claire Orange is the CEO DiGii Social. She is a child and family therapist with 30 years of industry experience. Visit

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