Growing Up Digital report reveals concerning impacts on learning and wellbeing

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Article written by Sarah Duggan for Education HQ. This article was originally published on 16 April 2020 and can be accessed here

Nine out of ten teachers and principals in Australia have seen an increase in the number of students with emotional, social and behavioural challenges compared to just five years ago, initial findings from Growing Up Digital Australia have revealed. 

Professor Pasi Sahlberg said the apparent decay in students’ health, wellbeing and enthusiasm for learning cannot be directly linked with their increasing use of digital technologies – but it is “most likely the case”. 

Led by The Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW Sydney, the study’s Phase 1 data also found three out of five Australian educators have observed a general decline in students’ readiness to learn. 

Two-thirds of the 1876 participants (drawn from all sectors across K-12) reported more and more children are fronting up to school tired. 

Professor Pasi Sahlberg, the report’s co-author and Professor of Educational Policy and Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute, said the apparent deterioration in students’ health, wellbeing and enthusiasm for learning cannot be directly linked with their increasing use of digital technologies – but it is “most likely the case”. 

“We cannot prove in this research that these things would be because of the high levels of usage of media and digital technologies,” Sahlberg told EducationHQ

“ …[But] we are able to identify a trend that is telling us that the number of children with a range of challenges related to behaviour and also social connections in school – and eventually learning – has increased.”

While the ambitious study seeks to shed light on both the positive and negative consequences digital technologies are having on children’s lived experiences, Sahlberg said a worrying message is clearly emerging from the data. 

“…teachers are speaking about children's inability to concentrate and focus on learning and stay on task, and that is often in education research, a very strong predictor of educational success.

“They also tell us a lot of stories about how the smartphones and technology are disrupting them while they are in a classroom and learning.

“The data is pointing much, much more to these problematic challenges that we have among our young people today, than the opportunities and strengths (offered by technologies),” he noted. 

The changes that educators are witnessing in their student cohorts are not exclusive to Australia, the expert is keen to point out. These are most likely universal trends that teachers and parents around the world are seeing. 

Growing Up Digital Australia has been rolled out in partnership with Harvard Medical School, the University of Alberta and Alberta Teachers Association – and the initial data from Canada is “indeed very, very similar” to that of Australia’s, Sahlberg confirmed. 

With more than 85 per cent of children across the country now being taught remotely at home, the report’s findings carry extra significance - how can we begin to understand the true impact that ramped up screen time will have? 

“I think that parents, and teachers as well, need to be very well aware that this may come with a cost to young people's health and wellbeing,” Sahlberg said.

“One thing that schools and parents can do is to try to think harder about learning activities and activities in general that would not require your computer or screen…”

We must consider how learnings across the curriculum can be taken into other areas of the home away from devices, Sahlberg suggested. 

“If we just assign things and assume that children will sit down six hours a day in front of the computer or laptop, that's going be a big mistake, because not only is it going to be bad for kid’s brains, but it's going to be really bad for their backs and health and physical condition as well.”

Imposing bans on technologies is not a viable solution, the expert warns. 

“People will say ‘so OK, you're saying that we should ban the smartphones and, you know, take the gadgets away from kids?’ I think it's very important that people who read your article or read our report understand that this is not what we are saying.

“We think it's actually a bad idea to ban things and use kind of that force to remove these devices that all of these kids were born [into]…”

Rather, Sahlberg wants the evolving research project to stimulate critical discussion in homes and schools throughout Australia. 

“You know, ‘how is this technology really affecting our lives? How much are we actually using? What is the role of the smartphones and media in our family? Is it a good thing? Could we do something differently? And what do we know about this?...’”

According to the Institute, the longitudinal study “has the potential to be the world’s largest study of technology, learning and health impacts on K-12 students”. 

For Sahlberg, the mission is unambivalent. 

“The purpose of the study is not to try to prove that technology is bad … it's to understand what is happening and have evidence based conversations and discussions about why these [observed changes in children] are there. So I'll make that very clear."

You can access the Phase 1 Technical Report here